Like it or not, we’ve arrived at that time of year when we must ask ourselves, why would anyone ever cover “White Christmas” as long as the Bing Crosby version still exists? Why does anyone try to match Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? Or Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song”? There’s nothing new to add to the Christmas classics – and in this sense, the “classics” are only about 70 years old. Imagine if you were trying to put a new spin on something that had been around for four centuries.
Therein lays the challenge of staging a production of a Shakespeare play in the 21st century. Your version of the play should bring something new and be different from the way the same piece has been done thousands of times. Just being unique isn’t enough, though – the show also has to be good. In other words, everyone wants to be Ten Things I Hate About You. Nobody wants to be O. (Just ask Julia Stiles.) By the inventive staging metric, STC’s new production of Twelfth Night absolutely succeeds, but the story itself is emotionally-underdeveloped and imbalance, making it difficult to connect. Whether or not this Twelfth Night is for you depends very much on what you’re looking for.
You can tell from the moment you walk into the theater to see Twelfth Night that Director Ethan McSweeny has done something interesting. He has the entire set fairly elaborately staged as an airport gate and then essentially abandons it, with great flair, within minutes. McSweeny uses the different set pieces and props in interesting ways, and while the set ends up feeling spare, it never feels as if it’s lacking. (This is a good time to note that whatever time you think the show is starting, the action on stage actually starts ten minutes earlier. Get to your seat five minutes before the show time at the very least.)
There’s also music threaded through the entire production. Heath Saunders as Feste regularly picks up a guitar and performs full length songs – very well – and a guitarist in the wings provides musical interludes and sound effects throughout the show. The creative decision seems to fully embrace the fact that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is unusually dense with song, and the fostering of that element creates a distinct identity for this version of the play.
The issue with all of these creative touches is that it seems the team behind STC’s Twelfth Night worked so hard to make the staging innovative, that they ran out of time to make the show itself sharp. McSweeny’s Twelfth Night leans in to the play’s goofier humor and storylines, and unlike his staging choices, it’s a storytelling decision that makes for a show without much dimension. The comedic storylines with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria dominate, while the more familiar and more traditionally emotional love triangle with Viola, Orsino, and Olivia is given the short shrift. That would be fine, given that the comedic cast, particularly Derek Smith as Malvolio, bring some of the strongest performances to the play. But the lack of time spent on what are theoretically the central relationships in the story make the choices and struggles that Viola is dealing with difficult to invest in, and, as a result, unengaging. And if there’s one quality you don’t want in a nearly 3-hour play, it’s “unengaging.”
There’s a lot of good in Twelfth Night, and if you’re interested in a slap stick-heavy comedic version of Shakespearean theater or in creative story-telling, this might be the show for you. But if your theater experience needs to come with some complexity and depth, you might be in for a long 3 hours.