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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Shipwrecked in Illyria

Theater Review

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Thispast weekend, Milwaukee Shakespeare’s production of Twelfth Night transported audiences to a modern-day Illyria that resembled an upscale coastal resort. And Brian Gill, brisk and dapper in a linen suit, made for a rather cheery Orsino. If his heart did indeed nurse the bruises of an unrequited love, he did a jolly good job of hiding it.

His spirits seemed to buoy themselves remarkably well against the “fell and cruel hounds” of desire. Nothing could be more at odds with his sleek composure than Viola’s ruffled and agitated appearance when she lands shipwrecked at his shore. In fact, her entrance marked one of the greatest contrasts in this otherwise even-toned production. The whole evening erred little from pasteltoned decorum, notwithstanding the riotous habits of the ancillary characters.

The Illyria portrayed here strikes you as a limbo populated by characters who seem unaware of it being so. Despite repeatedly asking themselves and each other “are you mad,” or “am I dreaming,” they seemed to think the matter hardly warranted any real investigation. There was little display of inner conflict, languishing for want of love, or being visibly transformed on receipt of it. This indifference of spirit reached its pinnacle when Sebastian (Kevin Rich), Viola’s twin brother, happily cast off any prior attachments to become Olivia’s husband toward the end of the play.

Viola was one of the emotional mainstays of the evening, as was perhaps intended by Shakespeare. Alexis McGuinness threw herself into the role with feeling and warmth, even if she skipped too freely over some of her most celebrated lines. It is telling that her only other rival in earnest emotion was the relatively minor character of Antonio. Todd Denning didn’t overplay his character’s homoerotic relationship with Sebastian, but made the strength of his feelings clear all the same. Meanwhile Malvolio’s (Mark Dold) show-stealing capers were often overwhelmingly camp. Though magisterial some of the time, and highly entertaining all of the time, he resembled a peevish maitre d’ rather than a dour prude, with flourishes of manner and speech that invited many laughs but little sympathy. Even his final wretched outburst provoked some furtive tittering in the audience, reinforcing the fact that some of that subtle play between comedy and pathos was lost here.

It was Feste, played by Robert Spencer, who best captured those nuances between heedless joy and mindful reflection. What’s more, he delivered his lines with such ease you’d think Shakespearean rhyme and meter was his native tongue. One of the greatest ironies of Twelfth Night is that the clown is the wisest character in the play. One of the greatest ironies of this production was that the man who played the clown delivered the subtlest performance.

Milwaukee Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night runs through Feb. 3 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center in Brookfield.

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