Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal
By Terry Teachout | July 20, 2017
Moritz von Stuelpnagel, known for directing comedies but not the classics, turns out a fun and bawdy Shakespeare production.
With two Broadway successes, “Hand to God” and “Present Laughter,” under his belt, Moritz von Stuelpnagel is now looking like the most talented director of stage comedy to come along since John Rando. So it’s happy news that he’s upped his personal ante by staging “Twelfth Night” for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. It is, after all, a big leap from Noël Coward to Shakespearean comedy, one that many similarly talented directors never attempt. Funny though “Twelfth Night” is, most of the laughs don’t come of their own accord: They need careful, knowing tending in order to explode on schedule. But Mr. Von Stuelpnagel knows his comic stuff, and he’s given us a show that’s every bit as enjoyable as its predecessors.
Unlike most modern-day Shakespeare directors, Mr. Von Stuelpnagel has chosen not to overlay his “Twelfth Night” with a high concept: It’s a colorfully stylized semi-modern-dress staging, but otherwise the show keeps to the center of the theatrical road. The cast is mostly young, and the actors themselves perform Palmer Hefferan’s incidental music in a cheerfully rough-and-ready manner. The results are as festive as their setting, a huge tent pitched on the great lawn of the Boscobel House and Gardens, a handsomely restored 1808 estate situated on a wooded bluff perched high above the Hudson River. Even when the weather is less than inviting, I can’t think of a prettier place to see an outdoor show.
Hudson Valley always has fine clowns on tap, and Kurt Rhoads and Sean McNall, who play Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, set the tone for the show, with the emphasis placed squarely on broad, bawdy comedy. (Without getting too graphic for the readers of a family paper, suffice it to say that Sir Toby appears to be suffering from a fairly severe case of prostate trouble.) Anyone seeking temporary surcease from the rigors of the present moment will find it in abundance here.
The only thing missing is the hard nub of dramatic seriousness that issues from the climactic humiliation of Malvolio. Stephen Paul Johnson, dressed in the pompous manner of an 18th-century lawyer, is a bit too quick to shift into full-tilt comic mode when he receives the forged letter intended to fool him into thinking that Olivia ( Krystel Lucas ), his employer, has fallen in love with him. It strikes me that Mr. Von Stuelpnagel has in this case erred on the side of broadness, in much the same way that he erred by treating Roland Maule as a figure of too-obvious buffoonery in his production of “Present Laughter.” Malvolio is a grotesque, not a clown, and “Twelfth Night,” at least for me, works best when he’s played perfectly, even rigidly straight, succumbing to unrequited love and exploding with justifiable rage at play’s end when he discovers that Sirs Andrew and Toby—who are, lest we forget, his social superiors, vulgar and loutish though they are—have made heartless sport of him.
This is, however, both a matter of taste and a counsel of perfection: “Twelfth Night” is above all things a buoyantly light comedy, and Mr. Von Stuelpnagel and his excellent cast never fail to make you smile. I rejoice that Davis McCallum, who has racked up an impressive track record since becoming Hudson Valley’s artistic director in 2015, has dared to entrust a Shakespeare play to an artist not previously known for his stagings of the classics. It’s a gamble that has paid off, and one that I hope will be repeated in seasons to come.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Running June 8 – August 26, 2017