Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000; WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: Dec. 16
In Shakespeare's mostly rollicking romantic comedy As You Like It, a country maiden resisting an ardent suitor is warned, "Sell while you can, you are not for all markets."
This caution might apply to Michael Halberstam's radical interpretation of Shakespeare's other mostly rollicking romantic comedy, Twelfth Night, which won't be for all tastes despite impeccable and thoughtful execution. Its somber temper generally eschews frivolity, despite bright and sunlit lighting ( John Culbert, lighting design ) against a vibrant blue ocean framed by classical arches ( William Boles, scenic design ) and sporting a dozen colorful floral-patterned costumes ( Mara Blumenfeld, costume design ). There is silliness, yes, but little frivolity.
Perhaps it's the slightly disturbing set, with its stark row of white arches crying for paint and suggesting ( it must be intentional ) the surrealist architecture of Giorgio de Chirico's paintings. Perhaps it's the famous opening lines of Duke Orsino ( Matthew C. Yee ), "If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die," spoken not to music but to a violent storm, maybe the very storm that shipwrecks twins Viola ( Jennifer Latimore ) and Sebastian ( Luce Metrius ).
Perhaps it's the matter-of-fact, controlled delivery of most dialogue, almost never giving voice to the emotions being expressed, and deliberately avoiding comic business and raucousness. Perhaps it's the clown, Feste, richly portrayed by William Brown ( in a long-hoped-for return to acting ) as older and definitely more world-weary than usual. Perhaps it's the chilling narcissism of Sean Fortunato's brilliantly ( and literally ) buttoned-up Malvolio, all the more incongruous a buffoon in his devastating self-deception.
It's all these things, actually, and more besides in an interpretation in which grand emotionsespecially, but not only, loveare madness and self-deception; madness in which thunder and lightning are music, sexuality is ambivalent ( long recognized in the play ), gender is fluid, the great of society seem slighter and less worthy than those they rule, and life never seems to strike the right balance between black sobriety and florid extremity ( so brilliantly represented in the costumes ). Even composer Josh Schmidt's wonderful, Spanish-flavored original musicmuch of it feelingly sung by Brownprefers languid tempi and long melody lines over peppy tunes and upbeat rhythms.
So this isn't the vivacious, often-boisterous comedy many regard as the defining quality of Twelfth Night, and probably not the production for 10- or 12-year-olds who've never seen it before; but you'll be rewarded if you go with that in mind and let it "play on" for you, although you might experience a tinge of sadness at the end.
Other principals in the fine cast are Kevin Gudahl ( Sir Toby ), Scott Parkinson ( Sir Andrew ), Andrea San Miguel ( Olivia ) and Karen Janes Woditsch ( Maria ).