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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 7, 2001

Theater Review: Court Theatre’s Rotating Rep



Although Court Theatre’s artistic director Charles Newell insists there is no thematic correlation between its annual rotating-rep productions, this year’s selection of "Twelfth Night" and "Piano" reveals an underlying interest in deceptions and social orders turned on their collective ears. And within this realm of ardent anarchy, both plays have torn down the facades of naturalism to expose the girders and rafters of theatrical contrivance.

Director Karin Coonrod’s toppling topiary vision of Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" achieves a more stinging and consistent thematic resonance than Newell’s sprawling and soulless interpretation of Trevor Griffiths’ "Piano" – based on the film, "Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano," in turn inspired by Anton Chekhov’s early short play, "Platonov."

Coonrod’s idea of an Italian garden mirroring the ordered chaos of humanity is seamlessly realized in designer Todd Rosenthal’s enlarged photographic images of geometric foliage. But Newell’s self-consciously auteur-like tilting of the theatrical playing field (impressively executed by designer John Culbert) overrides and distracts audiences from Griffiths’ rather slight story of futile self-preservation among Russia’s upper classes at the turn of the 19th century.

"Twelfth Night," one of the Bard’s most beloved comedies, is set into motion when twins Viola (the irrepressible Kate Fry) and Sebastian (a believably charmed Guy Adkins) are separated during a shipwreck off the coast of Illyria. Each fears the other to be drowned. And for the bulk of the play, we follow Viola’s disguise as the boy "Cesario" in an attempt to gain access to the man she loves – Duke Orsino (appropriately played as an effete aesthete by Lance Baker), in the throes of his own infatuation with Lady Olivia (a sharp-witted Carey Peters), who rejects him outright. When the duke sends "Cesario" as his wooing vessel to Olivia, the lady falls for the messenger.

Presiding over these multilayered cases of mistaken identity are Feste (a subtly acerbic Larry Neumann Jr.), the deceptively doom-prophesizing fool; Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (played with oblivious grandeur by Bradley Mott); and Belch’s oafish sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a bumblingly likable Yasen Peyankov). A subplot involving the pathetic comeuppance of Olivia’s puritanical steward Malvolio (a sympathetic John Reeger) nudges this seemingly cheerful comedy into gloomier terrain.

It’s easy to play "Twelfth Night" in a straightforward manner without the slightest degree of nuance or complexity. But Coonrod has stripped the play of its commonplace veneer to not so much unveil an elemental deconstructed skeleton but to rid the comedy of its often tidy and superficial shenanigans. The whole universe of the play has been split like the twins’ sunken ship to show the layers of self-delusion plaguing every character, except Feste.

The topiary motif –itself an arduous means of controlling the natural growth of trees and bushes – extends to a deeper irony of untruth. The director, however, gets a bit entangled in the garden imagery when Malvolio is bound into a conical tree formation for his punishment. That excess aside, the audience is fully aware, especially through the photographed topiary panels, that they are watching a theatrical production.

But a larger truth ultimately emerges from this abstracted yet focused conceit of deceit and intricate androgyny – further enhanced by costume designer P.K. Wish’s suggested floral silhouettes and Christopher Akerlind’s dreamy yet foreboding lighting.

In "Piano," a group of fading aristocrats gather for a summer party at the estate of a capricious and promiscuous widow, Anna (a coy but tormented Barbara Robertson). When the handsome schoolteacher Plantonov (the commanding yet vulnerable Christian Kohn) arrives with his submissive wife (Kate Fry), old love affairs are rekindled and new loyalties are challenged. The mechanical piano-hauling peasants, although peripheral figures, unobtrusively tip the scales on these smug nobles and misguided philanthropists.

But Griffiths’ play reduces Chekhov’s richly tapestried characters to flimsy curtains blowing in the wind. They have no purpose or direction and flail about as if engaged in a Chekovian spoof. Director Newell mentioned that he wanted the design – consisting of a long platform above the audience’s heads and a series of off-kilter balconies – to give the effect of camera angles.

But the theater’s amoeba-like layout only grows uncomfortable for viewers forced to turn around or crane their necks just to see what’s going on. When Bradley Mott’s puffed-up landowner, Shcherbuk, delivers a weary speech as he knocks over a carafe of vodka that cascades onto the stage, it becomes disturbingly apparent that Newell is more interested in clever visuals than deeper emotional truths. •

"Twelfth Night" runs through June 15 and "Piano" runs through June 17 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Tickets: $28-$38. Call 773-753-4472.

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