Ashland the first: night the twelfth

Viola in disguise (Brooke Parks) discovers an affection for Orsino (Kenajuan Bentley), as Feste (Michael Elich, center), Curio (Fune Tautala Jr., back left) and Valentine (Jorge Paniagua) look on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Bob Hicks

Ah, the adventures of the road. The brain trust at Art Scatter World Headquarters has packed up and squeezed itself temporarily into the Scattermobile, partaking of adventures large and small. We’ve ingested the oyster and the clam, descended into Devil’s Churn, gazed upon the gathered elk, spied osprey and eagle and hawk, felt the chilling spray of Hellgate Canyon as it soaked the curl from our hair. We’ve dined in the company of Jack London’s ghost at the Wolf Creek Inn. We’ve discovered disturbingly misplaced apostrophes on public signs, dangling hopefully like unacknowledged offspring at the reading of a rich man’s will.

Now we’re in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where we’re settling in long enough to take in the nine plays still in repertory, having missed the already departed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Well. It’s a marathon that’s become a tradition of shared argumentation and pleasure. Mr. Scatter, Mrs. Scatter, the Learned Sister and the Large Smelly Boys experience it all, each from his or her own vantage, each with the advantages and handicaps of his or her own delights and prejudices. Late August is high season, and a good time to be doing this: The shows have hit their groove and become pretty much all that they can be.

Today is a double-header (as the great Ernie Banks used to say before taking the field for the usually hapless Chicago Cubs, “Let’s play two!”). In the afternoon it’s a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a favored manuscript in the Scatter Essential Library. A few hours ago  there was some conjecture that if only there’d been one more lively and level-headed Bennet sister, she’d have been ideal for the good and charming Colonel Fitzwilliam. In the evening it’s Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, a story of the Congolese war, in a production that has been reported to be shattering and memorable.

Last night the marathon began in what should have been splendid fashion with this season’s Twelfth Night on the open-air Elizabethan Stage. But the Brain Trust was in rare accord that this was a weak production, pretty but safe, usually opting for the easy laughs (and not always getting them), underestimating the desire and ability of the audience to dive deeper into the mysteries. Sad to say, we felt condescended to — and although we know that wasn’t the intention, it was the effect.

Twelfth Night may be, as many have argued, the closest thing we have to a perfect comedy. But it arrives at its perfection at least in part through its imperfections: a clown who isn’t especially funny, a comic villain who is at least as sinned against as he is sinning.

Feste, the clown, has good company in Shakespeare’s plays, especially from the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It. The role of the fool isn’t necessarily to crack jokes (although he should be good at that), but to deflate powerful egos without having one’s head separated from one’s shoulders: Think Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Feste manages this remarkably well, moving easily between flawed masters (Orsino, Olivia) even as he takes dead aim at the high-level factotum Malvolio. Feste tightens the screws and eases the tension at the same time, a fine trick, and in the festival’s current production, actor Michael Elich shades it both ways beautifully — better even, Mr. Scatter thought, than Ben Kingsley in Trevor Nunn’s movie version, because Kingsley stripped the clown’s character a little too bare (and Elich sings better, too). In Twelfth Night, Feste isn’t just an observer and commentator, he’s a participant, and in participating he reveals his own dark vanities.

Malvolio is another case entirely, one of the most interesting comic characters ever devised, partly because when you stop to think about him he’s barely comic at all. Malvolio is a blood brother, or at least a blood cousin, to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Angelo in Measure for Measure: a man who breaks because he can’t bend. Like Angelo, Malvolio exudes a kind of virtue but lacks empathy. Like Shylock, he is outcast (with far better reason than Shylock, who is scorned without legitimate cause) and, humiliated, vows revenge. Malvolio needs to be played sharply and shrewdly and humanly, like the competent and fatally proud man he is. Play him simply like the butt of the joke and you’ve missed the point: He’s the worm in the apple, the curse at Sleeping Beauty’s christening party, summer’s impending winter of discontent. The Malvolio I remember best is the late Peter Fornara, from probably 30 years ago, who played the man as calculating and intelligent and thirsting for power. By the end of the story you felt, as in Merchant, a sense of hovering shame at the actions of the play’s “good” people, and of an earthquake about to happen. You felt present at the death of a competent administrator and the birth of a violent revolutionary. The effect wasn’t to eliminate the merriment of the rest of the characters but to underscore that Illyria is very far from Paradise and that, like the playgrounds of the Norse gods and heroes who cavort beneath the sword of Ragnarok, it can’t last.

Christopher Liam Moore, Ashland’s Malvolio, is a good actor but it felt as if he didn’t have a chance. The play’s direction, by Darko Tresnjak (a veteran of The Old Globe in San Diego), so plumps up the farcical and obvious that Malvolio becomes a mere cartoon character. Other very good actors (Miriam A. Laube as Olivia, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Maria) get caught up in the same sort of grinning mummery, stepping away from genuine emotional engagement and into cartoonland. They, and this show, could have been much more. Mr. Scatter wishes the production could have followed a little more closely the example of Tony DeBruno, who brought a simple warm engagement to his portrayal of the plotter Fabian, and so stands out in a minor role.

Still, this is Twelfth Night, and you can’t keep a great play down: It’ll triumph, at least partially, against most odds. This is a polished production, and handsome to look at, and several scenes and characters work well, even though it’s mostly empty calories. It would have been nice, though, to actually care about it.

Next stop: the lush lawns of Pemberley.


PHOTO: Viola in disguise (Brooke Parks) discovers an affection for Orsino (Kenajuan Bentley), as Feste (Michael Elich, center), Curio (Fune Tautala Jr., back left) and Valentine (Jorge Paniagua) look on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.