England’s Propeller theater company has brought two Shakespeare comedies to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, with a mixed result.
Its production of “Twelfth Night,” about mischief and merriment, desire and deceit, has a slow first act but becomes entertaining in the second. “The Taming of the Shrew,” with which “Twelfth Night” alternates performances, comes off like an antiquated curio pulled from the closet.
Director Edward Hall, who founded Propeller, stages both plays using similar elements — live music, dance, a chorus, men in women’s roles (or, in “Twelfth Night’s” Viola, a man playing a woman masquerading as a man). “Night” features a chorus in half masks, while the chorus members in “Shrew” look like pirates on shore leave.
The action in both shows plays out on a mostly bare set designed by Michael Pavelka with modular pieces that consist of big walk-through wardrobes with mirrors.
First the good news. “Twelfth Night” shows off the best sides of the players in this all-male company. The comedy has gotten more engaging productions at the Guthrie — including an “original practices" version headlined by Mark Rylance a decade ago — but Propeller’s take is worthy of a look-see. Actor Liam O’Brien, who plays the wise fool Feste, introduces the action with droll wit and expressive, if understated, singing.
The all-male casting adds a layer of distancing, but also a frisson to a confusion-inducing plot. “Twelfth Night” revolves around separated fraternal twins, tricks played on hapless souls and mock torture in Illyria. Shipwrecked Viola (Joseph Chance) has disguised herself as a eunuch, Cesario, and is serving Duke Orsino (Christopher Heyward). Meanwhile her twin, Sebastian (Dan Wheeler), has an affair with the mourning, Vulcan-eyed countess, Olivia (Ben Allen). In a joke that turns cruel, Malvolio (Chris Myles), the countess’ steward, is tricked into wearing yellow stockings and a studded codpiece.
The actors in Hall’s cheeky, noir-inspired staging mostly deliver with gusto. Charismatic, movie-handsome actor Heyward, however, plays Orsino with such large gestures, he sometimes seems to be in his own play.
“Shrew” isn’t as happy an experience, in part because its narrative offends modern sensibilities, even if its premise still has some purchase. Katherine (Wheeler), the daughter of a wealthy gentleman, is too strong-willed, independent and intelligent to be considered marriage material. Her father, Baptista (Myles), pawns her off to Petruchio (Vince Leigh), a gentleman from Verona who may be able to handle her. Petruchio starves and abuses Kate until she becomes a submissive wife who’s as docile as a draft horse. The end.
Modern critics and scholars have puzzled over what to take away from this play, which invites laughter at abuse. Composer and librettist Cole Porter wrote a wonderful musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” around it. And theater companies have tried conceits and gimmicks to make “Shrew” less off-putting.
Uneven performances in lead roles do not help sell the story. Leigh invests Petruchio with swagger but, at bottom, he is an abuser. Wheeler’s Kate is not campy, but she is unsympathetic. And Arthur Wilson, who plays Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, does not seem well-cast. On opening night, his stiffness prevented him from tapping much more than the surface of a character who pretends to be one thing but secretly is another.