Mark Strong and Emily Watsonin Twelfth Night
Mark Strong and Emily Watson
in Twelfth Night
The shipwrecked Viola and the house-bound Olivia have both lost brothers by the time William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night begins. These unfortunate young women are not, however, the only sorrowful characters in Sam Mendes's elegiac production. As this adagio of a unfolds in the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, everyone in the mythical Illyria seems to be in some stage of grief.

To press the point, costume designer Mark Thompson has outfitted the ensemble in black or dove gray, as if they're all mourning some unspecified loss. Set designer Anthony Ward places dozens of candles on the upstage floor and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone has hung upwards of 50 votive lamps in a random pattern over the characters' heads. Compounding the dolor is the music of George Stiles, whose work here includes many sumptuous strains marked by -- as Orsino puts it in his opening speech -- "a dying fall."

Presiding over this impeccable production of the Bard's bittersweet romantic comedy, Mendes imposes a consistent solemnity. He has the actors play their scenes as if there are tears on their faces that have only just dried. The mood extends to the cross-purposed (and, in one case, cross-dressed) lovers at the center of the narrative. Viola (Emily Watson), garbed as the page Cesario, makes amorous overtures to Olivia (Helen McCrory) on behalf of the love-struck Orsino (Mark Strong) even while falling in love with him herself. Olivia, removing her mourner's veil long enough to spurn Orsino's wishes, becomes enamored of Cesario/Viola. Orsino can't understand why, when he's pining for Olivia, he experiences an unexpected attraction to Cesario. When Viola's missing brother Sebastian (Gyuri Sárossy) turns up alive, he's baffled at the treatment he receives from those taking him for Cesario.

As if in deference to the somber mood, the comic Twelfth Night inhabitants -- most notably the martinet Malvolio (Simon Russell Beale) -- seem just as muted as the lovelorn crowd, which is not to say that they're entirely beyond silly or vulgar behavior. The heavy drinking Sir Toby Belch (Paul Jesson) lives up to his name and also luxuriates in bouts of flatulence; Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Bradley) seems further afflicted with an ague of the nether cheeks. Nevertheless, the two buffoons, along with gentlewoman-pal Maria (Selina Cadell), keep their high jinks subdued in deference to the baleful atmosphere. So does the clown Feste (Anthony O'Donnell) as he repeatedly discourses on the true fools of this world. It's Feste who gets to sing three of Shakespeare's rueful lyrics. (composer Stiles's setting of "O Mistress Mine" could be the best ever.)

Yes, Mendes has made Twelfth Night's arrangement of typical Shakespearean contrivances -- mistaken identity, unrequited longing, assumed dead figures, lovers paired -- an autumnal diversion. He seems to agree with Shakespeare that, while love is a preeminent human condition, it isn't unconditional. When incorrectly channeled, love risks destroying both its subject and object. That's as true of Malvolio's longing for his mistress Olivia as it is of Orsino's love for Olivia, and Mendes has infused his production with that awareness. The same awareness suffuses Mendes's companion production of Uncle Vanya at BAM; the director obviously feels that both plays have complementary comments to make on the subject of thwarted affection. Together or separately, he implies, they offer a lesson on the importance of declaring oneself in matters of love even while accepting that such overt statements don't necessarily bring the desired results. [Ed. Note: click here to read David Finkle's review of Uncle Vanya.]

Anthony O’Donnell andSimon Russell Bealein Twelfth Night
Anthony O’Donnell and
Simon Russell Beale
in Twelfth Night
A collective "bravi" for Mendes's cast. The one getting the press hype is Simon Russell Beale, who now should quickly match stateside the vaunted reputation he has in England. Beale's Malvolio, suited up like a 1930s butler and emanating clipped hauteur, becomes a grinning fool when he is requested by Olivia and appears before her in cross-gartered, yellow stockings. Malvolio running is another sight gag that Beale tosses in from his actor's grab bag.

Emily Watson, whose tones are as sweet as birdsong, is a forthright Viola/Cesario. When she almost reveals her love to Orsino but chooses to cite a sister who "never told her love but let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, feed on her damask cheek," she is heartbreaking in her innocence; and she's comically lovable when, listening to Feste sing, she inadvertently reaches for Orsino's hand.

Mark Strong, as Orsino, is amusingly puzzled when he notices that he has just locked fingers with what he believes is a man. Never overplaying Orsino's wistful humor, Strong isn't merely love's fool; he's a clever man temporarily side-tracked. Neither does Helen McCrory give herself over completely to despair as Olivia; she's deeply affected by her brother's demise but not so much so that she isn't ready to go after Cesario like a chocolate addict tackling a Godiva box. When she throws off an overcoat to reveal a see-through black lace frock that costume designer Anthony Ward might have found in a Victoria's Secret catalog, she is absolutely va-va-va-voom.

The actors cast as the other court characters have fun with their roles. Paul Jesson skillfully doles out Sir Toby's belches, and David Bradley, as Aguecheek, looks like a thin-legged bird trying to negotiate a swamp. As Maria, Selina Cadell seems to have gone to the right finishing school while not being entirely finished. Anthony O'Donnell's Feste is unprepossessingly wise in the way he should be, and possesses a dulcet singing voice besides.

"Most wonderful," Olivia exclaims when she realizes that Sebastian and Olivia are brother and sister and that, as luck would have it, she has just married the brother. Her joyful outburst is also applicable to this production. How effortless Shakespeare seems when done with intelligence, respect, and invention.