Des McAnuff is a paradoxical director. In his hit production of Jesus Christ Superstar, he has managed to carve out strong character arcs in a rock opera that often comes across as a string of songs.
In his music-filled Twelfth Night that opened over the weekend, however, McAnuff has transformed a coherent play into a series of scenes that each seem to exist in their own separate universe.
His production is discombobulated by design and many of the individual moments are truly delightful - there's no doubting his knack for crowd-pleasing comedy - but in terms of storytelling it is perhaps McAnuff's least satisfying stab at Shakespeare since his return to Stratford.
As with The Tempest, the last Shakespeare McAnuff essayed here, the plot of Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck and a family separated. Twins Viola (Suzy Jane Hunt) and Sebastian (Trent Pardy) wash up on different shores of Illyria, lost in a land where the upper class are all lovelorn in one way or another.
Duke Orsino (Mike Shara) has taken up pining after countess Olivia (Sara Topham) as a full-time job, while she has been too busy mourning her deceased brother to pay any heed.
Disguised as a boy named Cesario for the usual shaky Shakespearean reasons, Viola gets a gig acting as Orsino's messenger with Olivia while secretly swooning for him. Naturally, Olivia ends up going gaga for the go-between instead.
"If music be the food of love," Duke Orsino begins the comedy famously, "play on." McAnuff takes this line and runs with it, saturating the show with a score he has co-composed with Michael Roth, some of it new, some of it reworked from their 1990 production at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Ben Carlson once again gets to show off his bass-playing skills in between his sardonic line-readings as clown Feste, here a melancholy bandleader who frequently breaks into songs in the style of the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen or the Police that are tuneful but often stop the production dead.
These popular acts and more are conjured up by the costumes. Orsino's court appears to have marched out of the album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Viola and Sebastian have a long-lost triplet in Annie Lennox.
Debra Hanson's design doesn't stick just to a rock'n'roll for inspiration, however. Olivia switches era from scene to scene, dressed in a Victorian bustle for one, then like a silent film star in the next.
Olivia's roguish uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and his drunken coterie dress for the country club, his credit-giving and credulous friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the always delightful Stephen Ouimette) making a memorable arrival in a golf cart with a pair of pints. From the links, the setting shifts to a number of sports scene from a batting cage to a tennis court.
If creating clear narrative throughlines were McAnuff's strong suit, this postmodern jumble might not be a problem. But, here, too often it distracts or confuses from the movement of the plot.
Far and away, this Twelfth Night's best scene takes place on a rare bare stage when Tom Rooney's officious, Secret Service-styled Malvolio stumbles upon a letter Sir Toby and company have forged from Olivia professing her secret love for her steward.
As Rooney's Malvolio gradually riddles out its meaning, his increasing giddiness is communicated with crystal clarity. He's a self-regarding sucker definitely deserving a comeuppance, but also a lonely heart deeply craving love. Here are five exhilarating minutes of discovery, hilarious, poignant and downright priceless.
In Malvolio's later scenes, however, McAnuff's gimmickry can be smothering as when the steward approaches Olivia not just in yellow, cross-garter stockings, but dressed in Elizabethan garb with a ruffled collar that makes him look like a novelty bath plug. In the context of the hodgepodge production this doesn't resonate.
The show also has a serious stumbling block in an unexciting Viola played by Suzy Jane Hunt, who was brought up to Stratford to act as a stand-by after Andrea Runge injured her back. (The plan is to insert Runge into the production as the summer progresses.) My impulse is to be generous to an understudy, but, as the main character, Hunt's lack of chemistry with Orsino and flat delivery of the text makes the central plotline sputter.
Despite having a much smaller part, Trent Pardy makes more hay out of Sebastian's journey and his strong bond of friendship with his sea captain Antonio, well-played by Michael Blake.
Their sense of comradeship is missing from the sillier scenes with Dennehy's abrasive Belch and Ouimette's squeamish Aguecheek, who bears all of his cheeks in the now customary steam room scene. (McAnuff steamed up his actors in As You Like It and Caesar and Cleopatra.) Ultimately, it's only Sebastian and Malvolio whose voyages are emotionally involving. McAnuff plays on and on, as per Orsino's instructions, but the mishmash of music doesn't feed the love this time.
Indeed, his overstuffed and overlong production unfortunately brings to mind Orsino's follow-up line: "Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die."
Twelfth Night continues in Stratford, Ont., through Oct. 28.
- Written by William Shakespeare
- Directed by Des McAnuff
- Starring Suzy Jane Hunt, Brian Dennehy, Tom Rooney
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.