It's a Mozartean comedy," Rebecca Bayla Taichman says. "It's 'Requiem'-sized in its sadness and melancholy. But it's also hilarious. The way to the comedy is probably through the darkness."
She is talking about Twelfth Night, which she is directing this month at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, with Veanne Cox as Olivia. The production will also be presented in March at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.
Taichman is better known for directing new plays. She helmed Theresa Rebeck's The Scene at Second Stage Off-Broadway last year and has worked with the playwrights Sarah Ruhl and David Adjmi, among others, in Washington and around the country. "And then Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director, had the audacity to hire me last year to do The Taming of the Shrew," says Taichman, "and now I'm doing more and more of the classics."
If you've never seen Twelfth Night (or haven't seen it in a while) the Shakespeare comedy of mistaken identity — and mistaken sexual identity — begins with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, in love with Olivia, whose father and brother have died and who is in no mood for romance. Meanwhile, Viola and her twin brother, Sebastian, have been shipwrecked on Illyria's coast; she thinks he is dead. Viola disguises herself as a man so she can work for Orsino and maybe get him to fall in love with her. Taichman says that her way into the play is through a prologue of her own design: "It's almost as if the play starts with Viola caught in a wave, drowning underwater. She's sort of meant to underline the circumstances that precede the play — the profound grief that both she and Olivia are going through. In the beginning, it's an isolated and disconnected world, and it explodes into this wild erotic playground of desire."
You have to "pass through the profound grief to come to that wild explosive place," she says. The play "is about love as madness — love that drives you mad on a cellular level, and that just makes you crazy in the most glorious way, and the most absolutely torturous way. The world of the play is very mythic, very operatic."
Illyria, she says, "is an eerily lonely place, pervaded by sadness and melancholy. And then this young girl washes up on the shore, and it's like she has this magic dust with her that creates a crack in the world, and everything starts to change around her."
Taichman says that she and her scenic designer (Riccardo Hernandez, a Tony nominee in 1999 for Parade) have created a set that helps illustrate her thesis. "I had a dream of the design before we started the process," she says. "I saw the whole first half of the play as being ice, and the second half as thousands of roses. That's been the guide. The first half isn't ice, but there's a very underwater feeling, as if you're surrounded by water. In the second half it bursts into this fiery, lush, very sexy rose garden — one rose blown up and rendered gigantically rather than tons and tons of roses."
When she directs, Taichman says, her work is always "sparked by interaction with other people." But doing Shakespeare is different. "It's just a little lonely. Because I'm used to working with the playwright beside me."