Shakespeare's scintillating comedy "Twelfth Night" light sup the television screen like a Roman candle and heralds the beginning of the second season of the six-year series, "The Shakespeare Plays," a joint BBC-TV and Time-Life television production. The play will air Wednesday (PBS Feb. 27 8-10 p.m. Check local listings for time, date, and repeats).
"Twelfth Night" (or "What You Will") is one of the most farcical and madcap Shakespeare comedies, which under the lively direction of John Gorrie spins from scene to scene like the "whirligig of time" the not-so-foolish fool invokes.
The setting is the mythical country of Illyria, ruled by Duke Orsino, who pines for the love of the indifferent Olivia. Onto the shores of Illyria stumbles Viola, fresh from a shipwreck. Twin sister of Sebastian, whom she presumes drowned, Viola disguises herself as a eunuch called Cesario to protect her maidenhood and becomes a servant to Orsino.
Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia with "Cesario." Sebastian returns to compound the confusion, and miraculously all the major characters end up married except for Malvolio, who persists in loving himself best of all.
Rarely has a play been more full of play than this one. Disguise, mistaken identity, and sheer trickery form the audacious underpinning of a plot so zany that it must have astonished even Shakespeare, who quips through one of his characters, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
As if to echo the discrepancy between appearance and reality, Shakespeare has outdone himself with plays on words. The play reverberates with puns and double-entendres, and the rapid exchanges, particularly among the lesser characters, may leave the audience gasping for breath and groping for sense among the archaisms. Unfortunately, the time seems not too far off when Shakespeare will become another Chaucer and one will have to learn a whole language to understand him.