Love and Fun - by the Bard

Two sharply contrasting productions conjure up romantic shenanigans

WHEN Shakespeare wrote, ``Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments'' (Sonnet 116), he may not have dreamed of impediments like Lucite-and-steel beds that rise to the ceiling like birds, rivers of silk banners that trap lovers, his and hers jodphurs, or giggling intrigue in a royal court that looks like a rajah's fantasy. But these are some of the impediments that conjure up much of the fun in two productions of Shakespeare's romantic comedies - ``Twelfth Night'' at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, and ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at Arena Stage.

Both plays deal with four young lovers merrily ``star-crossed,'' with cases of mistaken identity or unrequited love, with plots and subplots and misunderstandings ricocheting off one another like pool balls. As Lydander says in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' ``The course of true love never did run smooth.''

At the Folger, actress Kelly McGillis takes on the role of the beautiful shipwrecked Viola, mourning for her lost brother and also disguising herself in her brother's clothes as Cesario, the eunuch who serves in the court of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. We see her briefly after the shipwreck dressed as a woman, but for the rest of the play she wears jodphurs, a green hacking jacket, jackboots, stock, and shirt. Her hair is cropped short in a boyish cut that looks look a Ralph Lauren ad.

Miss McGillis, the gorgeous star of such movies as ``Witness'' and ``Top Gun,'' is nearly six feet tall. With long strides and a confident carriage, she carries off the part of Cesario admirably. In fact, she is even more convincing in a dual role here than in a 1988 Folger production when, as Portia disguised as a young male lawyer, she argued for the quality of mercy in ``The Merchant of Venice.''

As Shakespeare would have it, Viola's disguise fools Olivia the countess, whom the Duke has courted unsuccesfully until he sends Cesario as his messenger. Then Olivia falls for the masquerading Cesario (really Viola), who, in turn, has fallen madly in love with the Duke. When Viola's shipwrecked twin brother, Sebastian (Mark Philpot), later appears, he is a dead ringer for her in jodphurs, hacking coat, and boots. (McGillis and Philpot do look uncannily alike.) The mirror images, the tangled romances, and mistaken identities are all resolved when Sebastian appears. Olivia realizes it's really Sebastian she loves, and Viola throws off her disguise to become the bride of the Duke, who really wasn't all that much in love with Olivia anyhow.

Out of this knotty comedy of errors, director Michael Kahn has created a delightful show, frothy as meringue but with some deeper, sweeter moments underneath. A play that begins ``If music be the food of love, play on,/ Give me excess of it ...'' has clearly signaled there are insights in the wonderful words beyond the fun. As the Duke says, ``For, such as I am, all true lovers are;/ Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,/ Save, in the constant image of the creature/ That is beloved ...''

Shakespeare set ``Twelfth Night'' in the mythical ``Illyria,'' but Michael Kahn has set it in a dream of 19th-century India, the courtiers turbaned, the Duke decked out like a rajah, servants in saris, and guards with tall feathered fans. These are juxtaposed with the Victorian British Empire-ness of Viola, Sebastian, Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

The play romps along under Kahn's deft direction, with witty performances by David Sabin playing Sir Toby as a Colonel Blimp-ish lush; Peter Webster as a sleek, bejeweled Orsino; Yusef Bulos as a wise clown; and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as the mischievous Maria, lady-in-waiting to Olivia. Kate Skinner is a volatile Olivia, Philip Goodwin a tweakable Malvolio, Floyd King a custardy suitor as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Ralph Nash a powerful Antonio, Sebastian's sea-captain friend.

The sets for this handsome, gauzy production were designed by Derek McLane and the imaginative costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Refreshing music for some of Shakespeare's best lines as songs (``present mirth hath present laughter'') was composed by Catherine MacDonald. One final note: This cast polished each of Shakespeare's words carefully, their enunciation so clear that not a consonant was lost.

There is less of a polish on the innovative but uneven production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at Arena Stage. Romanian-born director Liviu Ciulei directed and designed it to look like the court of Duke Theseus in no Athens you ever saw before. Mr. Ciulei also conjured up the woodsy scenes without a tree. It is a floating, stylized production that doesn't happen so much as unfurl.

An opening scene, which Ciulei has staged before the play begins, gives us Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Petronia Paley), being dressed for her marriage to Theseus in yards of white fabric that circle the stage. And from then until the end of the play, bolts upon bolts of fabric stream in front of us. Gauzy silvery fabric - cascades of it - unspools like banners in an Alwin Nikolais dance to trap the characters or enshroud them. In the final scene, the entire court prances in, wearing billowing gold silk capes over green tunics. It is all very decorative, and designer Smaranda Branescu's costumes are beautiful. But when the fabrics upstage the play, something is wrong.

``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' written in 1599, four or five years before ``Twelfth Night,'' is Shakespeare's frolic about the illusions of love. His four young lovers prove, as Helen says, ``Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;/ And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind;/ Nor hath love's mind of any judgment taste;/ Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste;/ And therefore is love said to be a child,/ because in choice he is so oft beguiled ...''

In the snaggle of lovers, Lysander (Bill Mondy) and Demetrius (Neil Maffin) are in love with Hermia, whose father, Egeus, forbids Hermia to marry Lysander. She, of course, loves Lysander, while Helen is hopelessly in love with Demetrius. That all changes when the most magic part of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' takes place, and Oberon, King of the Fairies, casts a flowery spell over their view of love through his agent, Puck. Oberon has Puck do a number, too, on Titania, Queen of the Fairies, whom he's quarreling with. She falls in love with Bottom, playing an ass as one of a group of actors rehearsing for the play-within-a-play, to be given at King Theseus's court.

It is here that the we see the levitating bed, which rises transparent as glass about 20 feet above the stage and symbolizes the grassy bank on which Tatiana falls asleep. (She naps high above the audience for most of a scene.) In the woodsy scenes, Philip Glass's dreamy music is most effective.

The scenes in this production most true to Shakespeare are those involving Oberon and Titania, who perform with fire but do not smother the wonderful words.

Tana Hicken, wearing a waterfall of red hair and a diaphanous black gown, is eloquent and other-worldly as Tatiana. Tom Hewitt is masterful as Oberon. Their diction is crisp, their acting done in classic Shakespearean style. But much of the rest of the cast needs to make an extra effort to articulate, because the Arena's stage, centered amid the audience like a prize-fight ring, puts their backs to some theatergoers constantly, blurring their dialogue.

Richard Bauer is regal as Theseus; Christina Moore, as Hermia, has a sparky strength much like the early Julie Harris; and Stanley Anderson makes a perfect ass of himself, which is the highest compliment one can pay Bottom.

Mr. Ciulei has given us a new interpretation of Shakespeare's great comedy, which fascinates the eye but leaves the mind unsatisfied.

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