Trinity Rep's Twelfth Night is set at the end of the festival of Epiphany, but its real dispensation is pagan, not Christian. Its spirit predates Christianity and rebels against its manichaeism, offering, instead of a linear model of conflict and consummation, a cyclical reenactment of release and renewal. Beginning with death and dolor, it concludes with matrimony and the promise of regeneration - neither of which could have occurred without the frenzy of mischief and misinterpretation in between. Still, we end the play with an unmistakable feeling of stasis: despite all the action, nothing seems to have changed for its characters. This is exactly the point. All the disguises, schemes, plots, and ploys unreeled in Illyria are meant to preclude rupture and transformation. What looks like mayhem, then, is actually a calibrated practice of purification. When all is done, and the thirteenth day dawns, it is not just the idea of order that has been restored, as in all Shakespeare comedies: it is the exact same order that prevailed before the action of the play began. In Twelfth Night, role-play does not lead to revelation or self-discovery (as it does in Much Ado About Nothing, for example) but to a hardening of assigned social roles.
When the play begins, Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Joe Wilson Jr.), is lamenting his unrequited love for Olivia (Anne Worden), a countess in grieving for her dead father and brother. Even as he laments, however, Orsino revels: his unsatisfied desire gives him direction and distinction. It is performative rather than productive. His fanciful affections, and Olivia's indifference to them (which Shakespeare scholar Jean Howard calls "the real threat to the hierarchical gender system" established in the play, as opposed to the putative threat of cross-dressing), represent a seam in the fabric of Illyrian society. Onto this compromised surface stumbles the shipwrecked Viola (Cherie Corinne Rice), only briefly disquieted by the loss of her twin brother to the storm that nearly killed her; disguised as a young man named Cesario, she gains employment as Orsino's attendant. She falls in love with Orsino but spends her days delivering his entreaties to the implacable Olivia, who herself falls in love with Cesario/Viola the first time they meet. Her mourning is as meretricious and mercurial as Orsino's love. Meanwhile, Olivia's drunken uncle, Toby Belch (Fred Sullivan Jr.), is hosting the wealthy but witless Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stephen Thorne), who ineptly woos Olivia as well, while joining Sir Toby in a vindictive reprisal against Olivia's Puritanical attendant Malvolio (director Brian McEleney), who - oh, yes - also loves Olivia. One might wonder what Olivia has done to inspire such fervor in the men around her; the only celibate is Feste (Stephen Berenson), Olivia's fool, who is too smart to be ensnared.
This show is epitomized, anyway, not by intelligence but by the eruptive energy of Belch. Played with dizzying vigor by Fred Sullivan Jr., Sir Toby is an ebullient figure of inversion and destruction: for him, boundaries of class and etiquette aren't merely to be ignored, but gleefully obliterated. His anarchism is an affront to Malvolio, who runs Olivia's house with humorless tyranny; they are mirrored images of each other, even to the end of the play, when Malvolio, "much abused," leaves town in pouting disgrace, and Toby, bloodied in misapprehended battle, takes comfort in the companionship of the hapless Aguecheek. In Twelfth Night, the blurring - the eradication - of difference is not a symptom of disorder but a strategy of restoration: the extreme opposites of Belch and Malvolio confront each other, and each leaves the stage in shame; Viola models herself after her brother, presumed dead, and is later, and confusingly, reunited with him; a countess comes out of mourning to woo a woman dressed as a man and ends up engaged to a man who is the woman's twin. This extreme confusion is inherently terminal; it cannot hold. The force that tightens the knot of absurdity is lust; it is the mirrored image of hysteria, which simultaneously unravels.
The production at Trinity Rep, directed by Brian McEleney and starring half of the actors in Providence, is like a bottle of Dionysian vitality: shaken, agitated, and opened, finally, with a gratifying fizz. McEleney has captured the play's sense of controlled anarchy; the show is effervescent, and gently intoxicating. But something has escaped from his alembic: the play's connection to itself. The show seems timeless and placeless. It has plenty of movement, but too little choreography; speed, but no rhythm. It forgoes the deep emotional for the high fantastical. Still, where it succeeds - in antic, ataxic comedy - it succeeds thrillingly. Anne Worden, a third-year in the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, is a terrific Olivia, swinging wickedly between lust and self-possession. As Aguecheek, Stephen Thorne is agile and perfectly pitiful. Joe Wilson Jr.'s orotund Orisno is a little forceful - his humor gets lost in his dire elocution - but Cherie Corinne Rice nearly floats as Viola (and is a spry and convincing Sebastian, to boot).
What this production lacks is coherence, or completion. The play seems to be set (by master designer Eugene Lee) in Victorian sumptuousness - far stage left is a cluttered library, with more books than shelves and more picture frames than pictures; at stage right is a dry fountain, littered with dried branches and leaves - but, for all of its fastidiousness, the set feels like a prop and never a place. It is not lived in, just tripped over. The library is unvisited - like most of us today, nobody in Illyria has the time or inclination to read - and the fountain is as redolent as a husk. McEleney's production does not suggest a life - or death - outside of the script. For all of its impudence and irreverence, the show is literal rather than metaphysical. It has a wonderful spirit of playfulness, but no sense of purpose. What is the life from which the excitements of Twelfth Night are a reprieve? Who are the books for? How does the fountain sound when it is on? McEleney marvelously exposes the urgent ritualism of the play but leaves us with a disconcerting question: Who are all these people behind their masks?