With his long, inelegant frame wrapped in the costume of a dowager, British humorist Peter Cook once performed a witty parody of Shakespeare on his television show Not Only...But Also. Snarling at costar Dudley Moore, who was dressed in robes and a crown, Cook intoned, "So you met someone who set you back on your heels?" Then, furious, Cook spat out the chorus to the Mercer/Malneck song: "Goody, goody!"
I do not know if Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Dowling has seen Cook and Moore's sketch; presumably he has, as at one point in his production of Twelfth Night Sir Toby Belch (Michael McCarty) staggers out onto the stage singing--you guessed it--"Goody Goody." In fact, Dowling has transposed the entirety of Shakespeare's ode to muddled gender into the Roaring Twenties. The play opens with Orsino (Peter Hermann) and his lackeys sipping mixed drinks, smoking, and luxuriating in deco-style leather armchairs as they watch a silent film of a shipwreck in which a twin brother and sister become separated. There is nothing that strange here, as it has developed into quite a fashion to contemporize Shakespeare in some way or another: Kenneth Branagh set his version of Hamlet in the 1800s, while Michael Almereyda set his amid modern skyscrapers and laundromats. And why not? Shakespeare himself never met an anachronism he didn't like, and there is no real need to dress his characters in flowing robes and have them wander through crumbling castles. Foppish sweaters and Erté-styled bedrooms will do very nicely, thank you. And, as the Guthrie's program takes great pains to point out, the Twenties is a reasonable decade for Twelfth Night. After all, what better location for a story of mad youth than a decade of mad youth?
The results are a triumph of set and costume design (several items of furniture drew audible gasps from the opening-night audience), and dropping Twelfth Night into the Jazz Age does nothing to harm it, if it doesn't add much beyond a scene in which several characters burst into a medley of songs about ukulele ladies and forever blowing bubbles. A jazz combo plays onstage throughout the show, adding big-band-style drum rolls to the happy nonsense onstage. Bump-ba-da--Viola washes up on shore and disguises herself as a man; Bump-ba-da--Viola falls in love with the regal Orsino; Bump-ba-da--Orsino's unrequited love, Olivia, falls in love with Viola. Heidi hi! Ho ho ho! Now you're singing with a swing!
It's all great fun, even if it doesn't offer up any real opportunity for histrionic inventiveness. (Compare this with Dowling's ingenious recasting of the players in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which he made them into actors in a modern community theater--now there were histrionics!) Kathryn Meisle might bite her pinky finger and pose vampishly as Olivia, and Michael McCarty may be dressed in such a manner that one expects him to start prattling on about losing a dozen porters while hunting elephants in the veldt, but this is just modern filigree--delightful, decorative, but disposable.
Fortunately, the Guthrie presents us with a picture of romance that is breathlessly, joyously utopian. Characters fall in love for no reason other than a few words of flattery, and marry for no reason other than that it seems a swell thing to do. They do not appear to care about the gender of their beloved (this play, along with Shakespeare's poetry, is the principal text for those who wish to make a case that the Bard was as gay as a crackling spring morning), nor does it really bother anybody when they swap one lover for another.
Dowling and his cast catch Shakespeare's atmosphere of the high fantastical between the notes of a hot Dixieland horn lick and in rowdy after-hours parties in wine cellars. Magnificent performers such as Guthrie regulars Sally Wingert, Richard S. Iglewski, and Barbara Bryne lose themselves in the delirium of Shakespeare's flowery professions of ardor. The words of the play sail into the air above the cast like lawn darts at some fabulous garden party, imbedding themselves in the heads of the happy audience. When the fool Feste declares that "journeys end in lovers meeting," these sentiments stick deep in our brains. This may not be the truth, but it is what should be the truth, and the Guthrie presents that sentiment in all of its foolish, irrational, hopeful fervor.
Besides me, there were only four people in the audience for last Saturday's performance of f.k.u.c. [or] walking wounded at the Acadia Café and Cabaret, but it does not matter: The greatest of things can happen before the smallest of audiences. The crowd--well, the select people sitting in the seats--seemed impressed but bewildered by the performance: As the show's title suggests, it is determinedly avant-garde. The play's cast of three (Stephenetta Harmon, Jeffrey Duval, and Amy Behn) moved about onstage in deliberate, bizarre, dancelike motion as Björk and Everything But the Girl played, and they paused only long enough to launch into short monologues from off-off-Broadway playwright Richard Foreman's notebooks and the tragedies of Euripides.
This might sound taxing, but it isn't. The actors stare at the audience with a forthrightness that is sometimes nerve-racking, declaring, "The enemas were a Saturday-afternoon routine," and the words and the play become that rarest of things: a complete surprise. The production was assembled by Ramon Tejada, who displays a promising quality: A sharp, developing directorial intelligence. Even at its most oblique, this production has both a logic and an inventiveness that makes it insistently fascinating.