Theater Review: "Twelfth Night" at Post5

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Viola (Jessica Tidd) survives a shipwreck--one she believes has killed her brother Sebastian (Sean Kelly). Grief-stricken, she disguises herself as a boy--Cesario--and serves a melancholy gentleman, Orsino (Tom Walton), who pines for Olivia (Chip Sherman), who herself mourns a lost brother, and spurns all courtship. Viola--stuck in disguise--soon falls for Orsino, and Olivia falls for Cesario. While the shipwrecks, gender-swapping, and mistaken identities may seem like boilerplate Shakespearean comedy, "Twelfth Night" (at Post 5 through May 16th) is unique among the Bard's plays for its concentrated philosophical focus on passion. How do Viola and Olivia go from grief to ecstasy so quickly? What does it mean that the latter can become besotted with an invented disguise, rather than actual wooers who surround her? For all our pretenses to intellect and civilization, are we emotion's puppets? It's heady stuff, and director Cassandra Boice grounds it well, in an inventive staging. Her shipwreck scene is masterful, and the comic flourishes, including any time Sherman's Olivia uses the onstage ramp, are often hilarious. Like most Shakespeare comedies "Twelfth Night" feels larded with plot--in this case scenes involving the drunken knight, Sir Toby Belch (Jeff Gorham). The playwright's mature comedies often feature ambivalently drawn author surrogates, characters who arrange plots or schemes involving those around them. These can be villainous, like Don John in "Much Ado," or inscrutable, like the Duke in "Measure for Measure." Through these figures, it can feel as though Shakespeare is unconsciously working out the ethics of creating characters and then subjecting them to hardship or ridicule. The results are generally unpleasant, and perhaps never so much so as in the case of Sir Toby. A Bacchanalian figure, he seems to represent unrepressed passion and id. Concerned only with his appetites, and resentful of those who would curb them, he uses others, like the pitiable Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Steve Brown). Toby's opposite is the misanthropic Malvolio (Ty Boice), a sort of estate manager for Olivia, Toby's niece and benefactress. Affronted by Malvolio's threats to have him evicted, Toby and his cohorts concoct an elaborate plan to humiliate and discredit the former. With its focus on love, passion and imbalance, these passages are thematically on the nose, but drama-wise they're a bit of a slog. Some productions take Toby's edge off by presenting him as a Falstaffian rogue--an epicure who can't help himself. Gorham, however, goes the other way, creating a snarling, aggrieved lout, who looks as though he's stepped out of a Tom Waits song, and with whom it's difficult to sympathize. Boice, meanwhile, works comic wonders with Malvolio. Petty, deluded, self-centered and uptight, though he is, Boice makes him somehow magnetically irresistible. Generous and without vanity, the actor makes a seemingly closed off figure spacious, sharing his foibles with all of us, and leaving the audience in stitches. Unfortunately, this makes Belch's lengthy torture of the character even more uncomfortable. Twelfth+Night More winning are the scenes between lovers. Tidd and Walton, for instance, generate real sparks when lounging about, pontificating about the sexes, and their own histories. Tidd's scenes with Sherman, too, are fun, the former impersonating a proud, young courtier, and the latter awakening to love's spark. Casting Sherman across gender is both super progressive and super successful. His Olivia never feels like a stunt, and he effortlessly captures both the ecstasy of infatuation and the freefall from dignity that often accompanies it. All three of these actors are quickly becoming Shakespearian must-sees in Portland. As they did with last season's "As You Like It," Post5 fills the stage here with live music, mostly by way Jim Vadala's Feste. Vadala--a company member who shown in "Love's Labors Lost" as Berowne--has gobs of charisma, and easily anchors the audience during the opening and in transitions with the period songs. The device works beautifully for the high energy show. Even in his comedies Shakespeare was a harsh critic of human nature, lending shows like "Twelfth Night" a bitter edge. Post5's show contains that, but offers love, warmth and hilarity, as well. "Twelfth Night" at Post5 Theatre through May 16. BlogTail_Leela Ginelle