The moment you see the filmy curtain in front of the set of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night or What You Will," you know you are in for an unconventional production. Suffice it to say that director Mark Lamos is comfortable taking risks on stage - something that this reviewer usually welcomes to keep plays written centuries ago alive instead of just archival writings. That said, this production does not completely satisfy.
Andrew Boyce's surrealistic scenic is stunning with its eclectic collection of beach scene, chandeliers, balloons, abandoned items and shabby chic architecture, all of which suggest the timelessness that Lamos seems to be striving to achieve. Tilly Grimes' rather dilettantish costume design is rather confusing, especially since some of the characters are barefoot, and not on the part of the set that is clearly a beach. The cast, too, is diversified, both ethnically and in its mastery of Shakespearean dialogue.
Nevertheless, for all its unevenness, the play is thoroughly engaging, thanks to the performances of Donnetta Lavinia Grays (as the feisty Maria), David Schramm (as Sir Toby Belch), Jordan Coughtry (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and, above all, Darius de Haas (as Feste). David Adkins (as Malvolio), Susan Kelechi Watson (as Olivia), Paul Anthony Stewart (Antonio) and Lucas Hall (Orsino) also gave mostly fine performances, but this production really belongs to de Haas. It must be mentioned that de Haas injured his Achilles heel shortly before opening night, but that was worked brilliantly into the staging with the use of a period wheelchair. Being seated throughout the play did not prevent de Haas from delivering a performance so fluid and natural that one would think Shakespeare intended Feste to be in a wheelchair. Feste's sole purpose is to be a seasoned observer of human folly in a play that encompasses joy and sorrow. He can do it from a perch. It doesn't matter where because de Haas' exceptionally beautiful voice and movements would have delighted the Bard. (Note to casting directors: Look beyond any disabilities a performer may have.)
But back to Shakespeare's intent. The play's title is believed to refer to the close of the Christmas season, when everything is about merriment, joy, hope and lightness. The play is dotted with lyrics (some set to more contemporary melodies, including the tune of the good night song from "The Sound of Music") as well as its classical themes of mistaken identity and subplot which involves a prank on the puritanical Malvolio. Was Shakespeare's intent really served? That part is debatable. Lamos pushes the envelope of fun, even in the few places some cast members may miss. On the other hand, the play is a bit complicated and the combination of the direction, set and costumes make it seem as if almost every performer and crew member simultaneously emptied all theirtool boxes to create this production. (Four actors even did some callisthenics in one scene.) A bit of tightening would have been welcome. The production may be imperfect, but the audience loved it, and it is worth seeing, if only for de Haas' memorable performance.
"Twelfth Night" runs through Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org. Lamos, who is Artistic Director of The Westport Country Playhouse and veteran director of 30 Shakespearean plays, will also conduct a master class on acting and directing Shakespeare on Monday, October 24 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.