Ninety-nine percent of this year’s production of Twelfth Night at OSF is sheer genius. The set design for its nominal 1930s Hollywood transposition is clever in all the right ways, nearly all the performances are exceptional, and the comic swordfight between Sir Andrew and Viola-as-Cesario gets the single funniest execution I’ve seen in the 40+ years I’ve been attending the festival. (Clearly we’d best not ask how many calla lilies they’ve gone through since the run started.)
And then we get to the twin-revelation scene, and the magic evaporates.
Now back in 2008, an OSF production of Comedy of Errors attempted the daring stunt of casting one (count him, one) actor in the role of both Antipholuses (Antipholi?), and likewise one (count again, one) actor in the role of both Dromios. What’s more, they made the stunt work — a very clever bit of staging at the tail end of the play skated around the problem of producing both sets of twins onstage at once. Note to Christopher Liam Moore, director of this year’s Twelfth Night: do not try this at home. Or at least if you’re going to try it, commit to the premise and run with it.
It’s not that Sara Bruner doesn’t do a credible job of playing both Viola and Sebastian, though here she is merely very good in a cast where everyone else is outstanding. Especially high marks go to Ted Deasy for a beautifully dry Malvolio, Danforth Comins for a hilariously high-strung Andrew Aguecheek (all the more remarkable given that Comins’ other role this year is the Prince of Denmark himself), and Gina Daniels as Olivia, here imagined as an exotically sultry but reclusive film star.
Part of the problem is technological. In absolute terms, the screen-projection trickery that allows Bruner to appear in both roles simultaneously is ingenious, and the execution is period-appropriate for the 1930s setting. But it’s also unfortunately primitive (or made to appear so) by comparison to modern film and television standards, and nothing in the run-up to the finale prepares the audience for what amounts to a left turn into pulp-era science fiction at exactly the wrong emotional moment.
More troubling yet, though, is what happens after the magic doubling effect is dismissed. Bruner is left onstage as Viola/Cesario — but in the very last moment, finds herself being treated as Viola by Orsino and Sebastian by Olivia, literally pulled in opposite directions at once. In theory, this is obviously a nod to the questions of gender identity Shakespeare himself raises in the script…but as with the special-effects trickery, there’s been no foundation laid for this interpretation of the character(s) anywhere in the preceding two hours. One can certainly imagine, nowadays, a staging of Twelfth Night in which the “twins” are in fact two minds in one body, with the attendant gender-bending consequences — but this is not that show.
And as a result, the last few seconds in which it tries to become that show fall absolutely, utterly flat. Which is frustrating in the extreme, because in nearly every other respect this is a home-run production.