At the start of Cockpit in Court's production of "Twelfth Night," director Robert Stoltzfus seems to be up to something clever. A two-dimensional, cartoonlike ship moves across the back of the stage to suggest the shipwreck that landed Viola in the imaginary town of Illyria.
When we meet Orsino, duke of Illyria, in the next scene (the
director has flip-flopped the opening two scenes), he is taking a bath -- in a two-dimensional, cartoonlike bathtub. Designer James J. Fasching's costumes hail from the 1920s, and the songs sung by Feste, the clown, are set to the music of George Gershwin.
But before long, Stoltzfus' amusing touches begin to detract from Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity. Perhaps the best example comes when Feste sings a song about death (to the tune of "Embraceable You"). In the background, three life-sized paper puppets of skeletons dressed in white tie are manipulated so that they appear to sing along. These bizarre puppets steal the scene faster than Ty Cobb stole bases.
Nor does it help that the director is working with an extremely uneven cast. (A few actors in lesser roles sound like high school students coerced to read aloud in class.) However, the senior members of the company, J. R. Lyston as loose-living Sir Toby Belch, and particularly Dan Baileys as the pompous steward, Malvolio, are a sheer delight.
I've always felt sorry for Malvolio, the ill-treated laughingstock of the play. Wearing a false nose that makes him look like a cross between Danny Thomas and Cyrano de Bergerac, Baileys' Malvolio is so relentlessly serious that your heart goes out to him when he sadly swears vengeance at the end.
There are also adept performances by Nick Raye as sprightly Feste, and by Matthew Rowe, who plays lovesick Duke Orsino as a socialite dandy.
In "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare exposed several types of so-called love parading as the real thing. Orsino, who claims to love the fair Olivia, is actually in love with love. Olivia -- given a lackluster portrayal by Jennifer Kable -- insists she is too heartsick over her brother's death to love anyone; she's in love with mourning.
Then there's Malvolio, who's in love with himself.
What do we love about another person? Though several of Shakespeare's comedies revolve around love at first sight, in this case he was suggesting something deeper than appearance or even the opposite sex. After all, the man who finally turns Olivia's head is actually Viola, who's posing as a man for her own safety, and Viola, in turn, is in love with Duke Orsino, who thinks she's a man.
Many of the subtleties of these complicated romances are lost at Cockpit. When Olivia is first smitten with the male-attired Viola -- portrayed with fitting sassiness by Michelle Haber -- the scene should be funny. Instead, it falls flat.
Another effect that falls flat is amplifying Feste's songs in such a fashion that they sound lip-synced. In a way, however, this is symptomatic of one of the main problems with the production -- Cockpit's annual outdoor Shakespeare. "Twelfth Night" is about people fooling themselves about their true natures, but this uneven production inserts too many foolish gimmicks to give those natures their due.
What: "Twelfth Night"
Where: Cockpit in Court, Essex Community College, 7201 Rossville Blvd.
When: 8 tonight through Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Call: (410) 780-6369
Sonnet from a Critic
Shall I describe alfresco summer plays,
Performed in weather far from temperate?
Perspiration buds at matinees;
July heat waves seem all too cruel a fate.
Often too hot the eye of heaven shines,
So rarely is his gold complexion dimmed.
All but the bravest audience declines
To sweat through sweltering Shakespeare scripts untrimmed.
But the eternal actors never fade,
Nor lose possession of the lines they know'st;
Nor shall the heat force them to seek the shade,
When the Bard's eternal texts they strive to show'st.
So hoping that she perish not with thee,
This critic hails hot actors -- what fools they be.
(with apologies to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18)