There’s still one more chance to see Propeller’s production of Twelfth Night in Ann Arbor, at 7:30 tonight at the Power Center. Unfortunately, it has to battle the Oscars, which I have no doubt will be silly and dull per usual, but which have a sort of sun-to-planet gravitational pull. I guarantee you, if you opt out and go to Twelfth Night instead, you’ll be much better entertained. (And given how long the interminable broadcast is, you won’t miss any of the big winners.)
Twelfth Night is a wonderful play, which doesn’t stop it from getting screwed up royally on occasion. Director Ed Hall’s production notes mention that it was written around the same time as Hamlet, and it’s just as complex; it just doesn’t have a body count. Hall also points out that Shakespeare was the father of twins, a boy and a girl, and the boy died at about the age of 11. Knowledge of that fact adds a poignancy to the scenes in which Viola mourns her brother, and in fact helps to explain the melancholy that hangs over the play like a troubled sky.
Hall has seized on that angst, and the result is a rich production that is, in the words of my 16-year-old, “in perfect balance.” Viola, as played by Joseph Chance, manages to convey a practical survivor’s strategy and gumption that conceals, barely, a broken heart. And Ben Allen, superb as Olivia, manages to be imperious, slightly ridiculous, confused, and self-absorbed in a way that’s utterly charming as well as believable.
That sense of barely hovering over a sea of emotional anarchy unites this marvelous production. Unlike Shrew, which in its production here had a hard time reconciling its discordant and harsh notes with any type of sweeter music, this Twelfth Night is funny in all the right places, and disquieting in the right ones as well. Most productions have a helluva time reconciling Malvolio’s torment at the hands of Toby Belch and Maria, who heretofore have been our primary comic relief. Vince Leigh, a terrific Sir Toby, has already shown us that’s he a nasty drunk with a short attention span; you get the sense that he realizes he’s pushed things way too far, and that he turns away to avoid the ugly self-loathing that’s surfaced in small blips as the play progresses. Gary Shelton, as hearty and sassy as Maria should be, gives up even sooner and is clearly just along out of duty. It’s up to Liam O’Brien’s Feste to follow through with the brutality, and the actor lays the groundwork to show that this is one mean clown.
Meanwhile, Chris Myles is a fine Malvolio. Small in stature, he bristles with self-importance throughout, and plays the letter scene with gorgeous cluelessness.
In fact, the letter scene is spectacular, with live statues and with Feste, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby all running madly from hedge to hedge. (John Dougall is superb as Sir Andrew; watching the first act of Shrew again last night, I am in awe of how fine a comic actor he is.) But all the way through, the production is terrific. For once, there are twins that really are difficult to tell apart, which adds a whole new dimension to the play. (Sebastian is played by Dan Wheeler, Katherine in Shrew, and was one of my son’s favorites in that very small part.) Orsino, a strange role—why on earth does Viola like the guy? he’s such a jerk—is played as an unstable and bitter drunk by Christopher Heyward, an interesting and unapologetic performance.
Look, everyone’s good. There are no weak links.
Design and music are gorgeous as always in Propeller shows, with actors donning half masks as needed to fill in the background and perform as musicians. The set looks dusty and decrepit, a memory palace difficult to flee, as entangling and overwhelming as a ship at the bottom of the sea. The onstage storm is conveyed through a chandelier that swings in the gloom as the twins are tossed about and then ripped apart from each other.
As it should, it sticks with you. In this play, Shakespeare explores loss for things that were, but also for things that have never been, and that, founded on dreams, can never be. Rather than simply stop, as so much productions do, at the “delightful love story with confusing gender bending thing thrown in,” Propeller forces us to look at what love means, and why, quite honestly, we so often fall in love with shadows. This group is on a hell-on-wheels quest to keep Shakespeare not just alive, but fighting, vital, and just a wee bit nuts. If you have a chance, go.