Twelfth Night
Ghost Light Theatricals
at Freehold's East Hall Theatre
Through March 5.

Rebecca
Book-It Repertory Theatre
at Center House Theatre
Through March 26.

If you agree that there are few things funnier than a pirate joke (personal confession: the punch line "arrrgyle" does me in every time), then you'll find the second scene in this 1970s-flavored Twelfth Night greatly amusing. The sea captain is outfitted like a pirate, and he says things like "Arr, this be Illyria, lady." There's nothing smart or sophisticated about inserting an extra syllable here and warping a tense there, but it's pretty hilarious. After all, nobody wants to take the time to mourn Viola's supposedly drowned twin; we all know he's going to show up dry as a sea biscuit in a few minutes. Still, the laughs feel cheap. It's awfully lazy to steamroll over the parts of the play you don't want to deal with, and director Michael Thompson is taking the easy route by letting the comedy--gratuitous eye patches and all--take control of the show this early.

Thompson hashes out the rest of the play with the same eager indelicacy, and the results are (to put it kindly) divergent. While Jaime Roberts (as Viola) windmills her arms and rolls her eyes cartoonishly, Patrick Lennon (as Sebastian) seems to regard the act of speaking as a horrible imposition on the audience's attention. Other cast members cope with the slapstick chaos somewhat more competently--Tyler Rhoades as Feste and Erika Godwin as Olivia are both funny and engaging--but this production is haphazard as a rule. Around the time that you realize Malvolio's illustrated (and oh so illustrative) Bible might as well be stitched to his palm, you start to lose respect for yourself as an audience member. Surely we could have figured out the guy's a tool without the sanctimonious prop?

* * *

Book-It Repertory's adaptation of Rebecca--now playing in the unfortunate food court at Seattle Center--is one of the most bungling theater productions I've seen in at least two months. Admittedly, the source material was not generous. Massively popular among women of a certain age, the Daphne du Maurier novel is a bizarre hybrid of Gothic romance and murder mystery, choked with overwrought narration and featuring a nameless protagonist so cripplingly neurotic you can't help but wish her husband would off her like he did Rebecca, his first wife. I'm obviously not the best judge, but I imagine the novel's pulpy appeal comes from women's desire to identify with the heroine--her abject naiveté, her sudden marriage that elevates her from penury to extravagant leisure--and of course, the horrified satisfaction we take in finally seeing her punished for marrying up.

So when director Jane Jones casts Annette Toutonghi in the role of the second Mrs. de Winter, I have to wonder what the hell she's thinking. Toutonghi is a fine actor, but she's not exactly dewy, and watching her character (who ages no more than a year over the course of the play) bleat cute little lines like, "I wish I were a woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls!" is just embarrassing. There's a whole flock of actual 21-year-olds in the cast--why not pluck one of those competent Cornish seniors from the ranks of the household staff and promote her to Mrs. de Winter? That would go a long way toward helping explain why the poor girl is so pathetically intimidated by her own servants. Instead, Toutonghi compensates by prancing stiffly around the stage, pointing her toes inward, and lisping a little. It's impossible to pour your retrograde dreams into such a ludicrous caricature, and the script doesn't give the audience anyone else to identify with.

Meanwhile, characters are constantly tearing around the stage, stopping, and then talking. Craig B. Wollam's scenery is minimalist when the script calls for ostentation and bulky when it could be spare. The male half of the cast mistakes English reserve for total, unremitting dullness; David Quicksall as Maxim de Winter makes the least haunted Byronic hero I've ever seen. Everyone's accent is wack. And to top it all off, the production is almost three hours long. The only time Rebecca comes close to redeeming itself is when the staging tips headlong into camp. A very corporeal manifestation of Rebecca's ghost (Janet Healey)--who, needless to say, does not appear as such in the novel--occasionally pops into bed with the second Mrs. de Winter, or flutters ridiculously through the halls of Manderley, giving the audience an excuse to vent a small laugh or two. She provides the only relief in the whole show.

annie@thestranger.com

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