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One of the cleverest reimaginings of the Sidney Harman Hall to date, director Ethan McSweeny’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (★★★★) is — quite literally — a theatrical journey. His intriguing concept is brilliantly realized by scenic designer Lee Savage, presenting itself in the opening minutes and then with even greater resonance at the end. Without spoiling it, suffice to say this is a true original.
It’s also an interesting way of casting what, for modern eyes, is in truth a somewhat fanciful plot of mistaken identities, love at first sight, and mischievous servants. Whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream is explained by potions and sleep, here there is no such signaling. For a 17th century audience it wasn’t an issue, since everything they needed to know was in the title itself. In Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a holiday held on the twelfth day after Christmas. A day of festive anarchy, wealthy households often held entertainments in which everyone in the house — servant or master, child or adult — dressed up and joined in a joyful, chaotic performance.
Flash forward to the present day and McSweeny’s rationale replaces this (for us, obscure) context with an idea that tickles the brain and just about works. If there is a tiny smidgen of slack or a touch of incongruity, it pays to remember that Shakespeare (unless heavily adapted) is a voice from another far more patient, ponderous and contemplative time. His pace will never cater to the relentless appetites of our screen-addled attention spans and McSweeny should be applauded for so creatively bridging this cultural divide.
The plot is largely Shakespeare’s version of a romcom set, just to be exotic, in the courtly homes of a coastal city on the Adriatic Sea. There is farce, absurdity, and plenty of his signature undercurrents of melancholic angst. Keeping it all on track is an ensemble job and the cast here carries it well, give or take a few weaker moments.
Immediately wonderful is the superb Derek Smith as the haughty Malvolio, servant and secret admirer of the supremely aristocratic Olivia, a lady of note among the landed gentry. Smith is that rare actor who can be as convincingly hilarious as he is sincere and he runs the gamut here from fabulous buffoonery to authentic outrage. It’s a large and impressive performance and thoroughly entertaining.
Another standout is Jim Lichtscheidl as the clueless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, delivering some of the best laughs with priceless, skillful abandon and great comic timing. Hannah Yelland’s Olivia is also a highlight for her crisp, classical way with the language and her cool believability. Jennifer Moeller dresses Olivia with such style it is almost a distraction. In the smaller role of Sebastian, a twin who arrives in time to confuse everyone (inexplicably, but that’s Shakespeare), Paul Deo, Jr., injects a surprising amount of nuance and a great command of the language — and it doesn’t hurt that he is a bona fide hunk, an attribute not lost on director McSweeny.
Cornerstones to the high jinks are Andrew Weems as Sir Toby Belch and Emily Townley as servant Maria. Weems enjoys his Falstaffian Belch, mentoring Aguecheek into all sorts of trouble and enjoying the torment of Malvolio. It’s easy to overlook just how skilled Weems is with his Shakespeare — he makes it all seem so natural. As Maria, Townley brings a bit of edge to her crafty maidservant, making her a little less about fun and a bit more about giving a comeuppance. Townley plays it large and it brings a needed continuity to the goings-on.
Not quite as effective is Bhavesh Patel as Orsino, suitor to Olivia but inexplicably attracted to his new male servant Cesario, who is really the young woman Viola (who, finding herself shipwrecked on the coast, has disguised herself as a man). Patel gets that a big space needs a big performance, but he pushes it a tad too far and the effect feels harsh. He comes into his own in the second act when he finally turns off the high beams, but it comes a bit too late in the proceedings. As Cesario/Viola, Antoinette Robinson has presence and command of the language, but she lacks a certain connectedness. Yes, her character is an outsider and, yes, Shakespeare gives her a certain passivity, but Robinson exudes a modern detachment that keeps her too apart from the high emotions and silliness in play. One can’t blame her for not finding a toe-hold in this almost histrionic Orsino, but she doesn’t seem to really like anyone, despite Shakespeare’s tender words.
Also just off-point is the multi-talented Heath Saunders as Feste, the court fool. Saunders has a gorgeous singing voice, the élan of a seasoned street performer, and he is very good with the language, but there is something here he doesn’t quite capture. This is a wise fool and Saunders gets that, but — and it’s hard to put a finger on it — there is a bit too much “I told you so” and not quite enough irony. As watchable as Saunders is, this aspect subtly deflates the fun.
All that said, this play must always be about the whole — a topsy-turvy world and its chaotic passions and antics, through which Viola must eventually find her way. McSweeny and his talented cast deliver this strongly and, like all great stories well told, we feel the characters live on, even as McSweeny leaves us with a final fascinating suggestion that, in this telling, it can never be.
Twelfth Night runs to Dec. 20 at Shakespeare Theatre, 610 F Street NW. Tickets are $25 to $118. Call 205-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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