'Twas a Cold, Lovely Night 

SF Shakes' Twelfth Night is visual artistry, but falls flat as a comedy, and as a play.

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night is a beauty, visually speaking. Its beauty is partly borrowed, to be sure: Richard Ortenblad's sets and some of Taisia Nikonishchenko's striking costumes conspire to turn everything into a René Magritte painting. It's an intriguing, energetic staging, and if the play's the thing, SF Shakes could hardly have picked a more reliably pleasing one, nor one more pliable to reinterpretation. It's being performed for free in local parks on weekend evenings all summer: After its current run in Cupertino, it comes to Oakland August 21 for two weekends at Lakeside Park and then spends September in the Presidio. In short, it's everything a summer Shakespeare comedy should be, except actually funny.

Now Twelfth Night is a funny play, of course, or else it wouldn't be quite so tried-and-true -- although when one considers the success of Cats, ubiquity might not be the best litmus test. In any case, this is a comedy by virtue of far more than the usual flurry of weddings at the end. Our heroine Viola, washed ashore by a shipwreck that she believes killed her beloved brother Sebastian, decides that because she is now sad and bereaved, she should go serve another sad person, the lovesick Duke Orsino, and that she should dress up as a man to do so, because that's the sort of thing women in Shakespearean comedies tend to do. Now called Cesario, Viola becomes Orsino's emissary of love to the contemptuous Countess Olivia, who of course starts making eyes at the pretty messenger, who herself has fallen hard for the duke. When Sebastian comes to town, very much alive and virtually identical to the supposed Cesario, it gives rise to a wacky series of mistaken identities. Meanwhile, there's a whole second plot involving Olivia's drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch and his idiot protégé Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who enlist the aid of the servants and the fool Feste to help them torment the countess' arrogant steward Malvolio -- a parody of the Puritans who would soon put an end to such theatrical tomfoolery -- by making him believe his mistress has the hots for him. Hilarity ensues -- or ought to.

For that matter, there are some strong actors in the comic roles. Stephen Klum strikes a slightly sinister presence as Feste, here the embodiment of Magritte's mysterious bowler-topped businessman, but he also is forceful in the verbal sparring that is, after all, his job, and sings beautifully besides. Veteran Shakespearean Julian López-Morillas plays disheveled Sir Toby with a devilish savvy, and Alex Moggridge is appropriately foppish and clueless as his stooge Sir Andrew. Jack Powell is the very model of an immovable manservant as Malvolio, so his speedy descent into making an absolute ass of himself is all the more striking. Even Fabian, a minor player in Sir Toby's retinue, is given a more fleshed-out comic treatment by Christina Vecchiato as a possible match for hapless Sir Andrew.

It's puzzling, then, that so many punchlines are given a spin that sends them spiraling flat on their faces. The comic actors seem to be doing fine work individually, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Director Kenneth Kelleher clearly has a hell of an eye for visual concepts, but less so for what works or doesn't in terms of selling a joke. Some of the slapstick is as surreal as Magritte's paintings, and instead of complementing the humor in the text and helping bring it out, the clowning often distracts from it. Klum's broad parody of a rabbi in the second act is more wince-worthy than remotely humorous. When Malvolio appears in outrageous fetish gear, the outfit is so over the top that it winds up getting all the laughs, and whatever anyone says or does in the scene becomes garnish. The laughter is often delayed, as the audience works its way past whatever's going on with the in-line skates and megaphones until the actual dialogue finally registers.

The straight story -- that is to say, the love story -- fares little better, because no one seems even remotely in love with anyone else. Joe Wyka's Orsino is a bitter pill, less swooning in love than sulking, but he's no match for his servant Cesario in any pissiness contest. Though she pulls off the gender-bending with style, Alexandra Matthew is all rage as Viola, fuming with every syllable and always seeming on the verge of punching someone out. Mia Tagano's Olivia has a good balance of regal bearing and sauciness, and Michael Craig Storm is nicely bewildered as Sebastian. But it's easier to believe Sir Toby's parenthetical romance with the maid Maria (Erica Smith), or the chemistry between Fabian and Andrew, which isn't even in the script, than that any of these purported lovers could climb off their high horses long enough to pay much attention to each other. It's a cold and lonely world up there in Magritteland, and the characters seem too lost in their own solipsistic agitation to connect.

The visual concept lends itself to this sense of isolation, and although it sometimes works against the text, it makes the whole undertaking consistently engaging to the eye. There's a striking device in which inactive characters stand around the stage as if painted in place while others enact their scenes. People emerge from windows in the blue Magritte sky. Viola crawls onto the stage from a small painting of a stormy sea. Olivia enters in a funereal procession with glacial slowness as the scene that precedes her is carried out in front of her. Feste skates around the stage holding his umbrella and often stands with his back to the audience to suggest the iconic faceless man with the bowler. Ben Scott's music, too, is somber and austere.

The costumes, the sets, the blocking -- the whole look and feel of the production is stunning and adheres effectively to its guiding concept. But that concept has nothing to do with the play. A Magritte Twelfth Night is merely a why-not proposition, and if it doesn't wind up serving the material, if more energy is expended on the place setting than the main course, then that's why not. Like the delivery of the jokes, it's not the wrong interpretation because there's a right one per se -- it's an ill-conceived concept simply because it doesn't work. It could work, maybe, but it doesn't. It's a beautiful Night, but a bit too chilly.

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