The show: "Twelfth Night" at Hartford Stage
First impressions: You can get lost in love and in the garden maze in Hartford Stage's stylish production of this Shakespearean perennial. There are so many couplings, re-couplings, un-couplings and double couplings, that you need cupid's compass to find your way to a happy ending, and indeed not all the characters in this romantic comedy are quite so lucky.
Director Darko Tresnjak has staged a beautiful looking and even audacious production and makes us believe in this heightened and intertwined world of formality and fun. The cast mostly lives up to the challenges of the romantic romps, and double dealings, although some of the darker colors are missed along the way, or at least are not integrated into the whole. Still, there are many pleasures in this lavish and lovely production.
This is one of the easy Shakespeare plays, right?: By easy if you mean entertaining and you don't need to know royal lineage, sure. But that Bard guy is a crafty one. Just when you think he's just yucking it up with some good old drunk bits, sexual shenanigans, or crotch humor, he throws something that you might want to chew on, and I don't mean tobacky.
Like?: Well, love. This production gets that right, how the heart can create chaos out of the most well-ordered (and sculpted) lives. And class revenge; oh yes, that's there too, lurking in the subtext. And don't get me started on gender ambiguities.
The performers?: A fine but sometimes flawed ensemble. Kate MacCluggage's Viola/Cesario avoids easy macho poses and instead conveys her disguised character with an effortless intelligence and grace that any cultured person would fall for. You can also understand how she falls for Lea Coco's handsome, buff and lovesick Orsinio who discovers the pursuit of love can take you to unexpected places.
As Olivia, Stacey Yen's opening scene of mourning misses a depth of sadness and her turnaround comes a little too quickly. Still, once transformed by love, her radiance is beguiling. To counter the moony with mirth, Adam Green has some wonderfully daft moments as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
The stakes are too low in the set-up for the servant revenge subplot though Bruce Turk is terrific when he shows Malvolio's emotional agony and (literal) ecstasy of a fool in love. (His effort to force himself to smile is a singular comic stunner.). Michael Spencer-Davis as Sir Toby Belch has more joie de vino than vivre, missing much of the character's class complexity. Jennifer Regan's Maria is spot-on as the crafty maid but there's little chemistry with Sir Toby.
McKinley Belcher III as Antonio, Joe Paulik as Sebastian and Gregor Paslawsky as Fabian all give solid support.
Best understanding love's many shades of gray is Che Eyende's fool Feste who fully gets the sweetness and the sadness, the humor and the hurt, the madness and bliss when the heart wants what it wants.
Production values?: Alexander Dodge's design concept, that is part topiary garden, part miniature golf course, sustains beautifully, with the help of a few elevating traps, clever staging and some painterly lighting designs by Matthew Richards. I also love Linda Cho's costumes that speak wittily and well of class and rank, sex and lack of sex in 1920s Illyria. (Her take on Malvolio's yellow-stocking outfit is a bold and literal one of a divided self.) But David Budries and Nathan A. Roberts' original music doesn't ground viewers in mood, time or place.
Who will like it?: Some Shakespeare buffs. Cross-dressers. Landscapers. Those longing for a big, juicy production well spoken and delivered.
Who won't?: Other Shakespeare buffs longing for more darkness and depth.
For the kids?: A good one for students.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Love is amazing — well, a maze anyway — in a production which hedges its bets on the Bard.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Tresnjak's gift for finding visual equivalents to underscore the richness of a play is impressive. I especially love this production's sublime ending when the now wiser characters step out and turn their backs on the crazy maze they've lived in, and set their sights on the once-turbulent-now-clear waters and open sky.
The basics: The play at 50 Church St., Hartford runs through June 16. The show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Evening performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are Sundays, and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 to $96.50. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.
An earlier version incorrectly stated the end of the run is June 12. It is June 16.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun