Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts., through Jan. 10, (215) 829-9002
TThe first thing we see in Charles McMahon's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for Lantern Theater is not Prince Orsino (Russ Widdall) saying "If music be the food of love " but Feste the Jester (the gargoyle-like Anthony Lawton), with bare feet and shaved head, dressed virtually in rags, hanging masks on hooks around the stage. Feste/Lawton dons these masks to play courtiers, police officers, priests and others - any character for which there isn't a spare actor around to play.
The economies of casting in this are obvious. But it also serves to establish Feste as a shape-changer, an embodiment of the transformative powers of theater.
Intentionally or otherwise, Feste's abilities to transform also make us aware of just how little the other characters change. Sure, the shipwrecked Viola (Karen Hinton) disguises herself as a young man, modeled after her supposedly drowned brother Sebastian (Tony Hagopian); and the puritanical steward Malvolio (Joe Guzman) is tricked into dressing in cross-gartered yellow stockings to win the affections of his employer, Olivia (Sonja Robson). But even then, the characters in this production seem resolutely stuck. As Viola observes, "For such as we are made of, such we be." They all are, and remain, who they are.
"Oh, you are sick of self-love," Olivia complains to her steward Malvolio. And so they all are. Orsino is lost in narcissistic contemplation of his love for Olivia, and Olivia in mourning her dead brother. Sir Toby Belch (Thomas M. Reiff) remains fixed in his drinking and his accent, resolutely in love with his own sense of humor. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dito Van Reigersberg) giggles, uninfectiously, with delight at his own stupidity.
And all the characters are stuck, not only in their unchanging characters, but in some of the most hideous, unserviceable, uncomfortable-looking and unflattering costumes I have seen (at least since I saw the same designer's costumes for Pig Iron Theatre's The Tragedy of Joan of Arc last year). Viola, dressed as a young man, looks like a cross between Smee in Peter Pan and Radar O'Reilly. And it's a miracle that Orsino can retain even a shred of self-esteem dressed in those pants, or that he can get any sleep in those jammies.
Still, there are a few moments when the play's dramatic fire is ignited: when Orsino refuses to believe that women are capable of loving the way men can, and when Viola, as a man, tries to convince him otherwise. J.J. Van Name, as Maria, and Mike Brophy, as Fabian, have some moments of delicious deadpan. And the embarrassing unself-consciousness of Malvolio's first words as he appears to Olivia in his yellow stockings - "Sweet Lady, ho! ho!" - is a delight.
But the production truly belongs to Lawton's Feste. No one else comes close to Lawton's sense of freedom, of transformation, of sheer fun.
-Cary M. Mazer