Through June 16, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Eye candy alert! Hartford Stage's production of one of Shakespeare's most accessible comedies, Twelfth Night, is saturated with color and overflowing with scrumptious stage pictures. The set is really the star of the show — especially as exploited by director Darko Tresnjak and his ensemble of lively, well-spoken actors. The payoff is a show that's as lucid as Shakespeare has ever been and as much fun.
Imagine an astroturf labyrinth some four feet deep, suggestive of formal garden hedges, with cute little Japanese bridges and gaps that can be stepped across or leapt or fallen into or used to hide a considerable population. Alexander Dodge dreamed up this theatrical contraption. He's not afraid of color, and the shocking green pops against a glowing backdrop that suggests ocean and sky.
The story centers on Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria at the top of the show. She believes her twin brother Sebastian drowned when their ship went down. Grief-stricken and mindful of her own safety, she assumes disguise as a young man and puts herself in service of the local Duke, who is lovesick for the Countess Olivia, in mourning for a recently deceased brother of her own. Duke Orsino presses his new page into service to woo Olivia on his behalf, with results he comes to rue. Meanwhile, there's an insurrection in Olivia's household, where Sir Toby Belch and his sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek carouse and abet servants who conspire against the spoilsport, Malvolio.
Kate MacCluggage plays Viola, disguised as Cesario, and is both credible and sympathetic. Olivia, played by Stacey Yen, is a tiny person who can be wholly overtaken by her feelings. Lea Coco plays Orsino as a narcissistic fop, which works just fine. Michael Spencer-Davis and Adam Green pair up as the drunken Sir Toby and the foolish Sir Andrew, whose multiple sporty getups are a hoot. Jennifer Regan as Maria is the mastermind behind Malvolio's humiliation, and this production suggests she has reasons based in legitimate fear of his violent potential. Special notice must go to Bruce Turk as the severe Malvolio. He's a fearless physical performer who essentially levitates in the effort to produce a smile for the first time, and who, once caught in the trap of his own ambitious fantasies, writhes with such sexual abandon that some teenagers I took to the show were appalled.
The lengthy prank played on Malvolio takes on the feel of a whack-a-mole game, as actors slide along the pathways, popping up and down to avoid his gaze. The set offers many opportunities for such theatrical gold. Hartford Stage subscribers will remember that this season began with a desperate woman lying on a black grand piano in the opening image of Hedda Gabler; this last show of the season bookends this image, beginning with a desperate man reclined on a white grand piano.
Orsino's first line is "If music be the food of love, play on." Most of the music in the show falls to Feste, the jester, played here by Che Ayende as an all-seeing outsider who sings freely, and often a cappella, making the songs less into set pieces than his improvised commentary on the action.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, great fun but shot through with meditations on melancholy and meanness. This is a masterful, gorgeous production, often elegant and sometimes tacky, but always visual and easy on the ear.