“Be not afraid of greatness” is the advice Malvolio gets from an anonymous letter in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Our officious, comedic villain hopes the greatness of his mistress Olivia will be thrust upon him, a thought that tickles him in all the wrong places. Ever ready to put a subordinate in his place or flatter his betters, when he sees the opportunity to move up the social ladder a rung or two Malvolio exults in the thought that he could be better than he is.
The idea that you can be better than you are was laughable to the play’s Elizabethan audience. You were born into your place; you stay in your place; and morality consists of being faithful to who you are. People act immorally when they put on airs, or act beneath their station. We laugh at the type of fool Malvolio represents in hopes that public scorn will teach him a lesson in humility. It’s an important lesson to learn, because those who don’t learn it turn into tyrants and / or corpses.
These days, however, we’re far more likely to listen to Robert Browning’s advice: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” To borrow a phrase, modern man and woman think all the world is a stage upon which to aspire and succeed or fail. Doesn’t Shakespeare himself give us proof and precedent of a humble nobleman who made it big by acting like a prince? And so, we applaud The Seeing Place Theater, which is taking this Romantic maxim to heart and keeping the tradition of Renaissance self-fashioning alive with their plucky production of Twelfth Night.
The artistic director says in his message to the audience “we’re trying to tell William Shakespeare’s story from twelve unique viewpoints. We have filtered these roles through ourselves and added our own personal stamps. Very little is set in stone.” The company certainly lives up to this promise. David Arthur Bachrach, who performs the role of Feste, is clearly the guiding genius of the play. He sings Feste’s songs and accompanies himself on a piano in true Elizabethan theatrical tradition. Mr. Bachrach is clearly the most proficient Shakespearean in the group, and his influence on the success of the show is palpable.
Jorge Humberto Hoyos and Ned Baker Lynch give admirable, workmanlike performances as Sir Toby Belch and Fabian. They succeed in being expansive and comedic without being forced or mugging for the audience (what I like to call the Jimmy Fallon Fallacy). Brandon Walker as the director and Malvolio, though a little tentative in his relationship to the text, pulled out some wonderful physical comedy that made the entire audience laugh. Anna Marie Sell playing Olivia — newly in love and girlish in her gray ball gown — is so cute that you almost want to pop her in your mouth like a Mento. And Lindsay Teed as Viola makes a sincere and unconvincing twin of Ben Leasure’s Sebastian. Unconvincing as twins, they were plenty convincing in their parts.
Though Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by the slipperiness of identity, the impossibility of discerning real people from fakers, and what that meant for actors who fake it for a living, all those fascinations are grounded in a firm belief in order, unity, and discipline. Play is the effortless magic that gets made out of precise and conscientious art. His plays are paragons of theatrical structure, 17th century criticism notwithstanding, and unless the cast is disciplined individually as actors and as a mutually dependent team, Shakespeare can be extremely tedious. My number one criticism of actors who try Shakespeare and fail is they thought it wasn’t about the poetry. Reader, Shakespeare is always about the poetry. If you don’t speak your lines in iambic pentameter you won’t understand what they mean, and the audience will tune out.
Shakespeare took liberties with standard play structures (Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action) because he clearly intended the action to skip along at the pace of imagination. That is to say, if the players are not quick as whips with their lines, a play written to be two and a half hours long will be three and feel like four. Shakespeare is difficult. If the actors don’t do the difficult work in rehearsal, they invariably pass it on to the audience. And audiences do not like to work. (They like to be entertained.) That said, it is a credit to this company and these actors that they did not back down from the Shakespearean challenge. They followed the old proverb fortes Fortuna adiuvat. That is to say, be not afraid of greatness, no matter how dauntingly Shakespearean.
From now till April 16th
ATA Sargent Theater
314 W. 54th St.
Tickets from The Seeing Place Theater.