July 31, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Shakespeare and Company’s production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, one of the William Shakespeare’s most delightful and convoluted comedies, is zesty, well-cast, and fast-paced.
The play is set in Illyria, one of those charming “anywhere places” that allows a director to choose any period and romantic locale for its complicated and hysterically funny events to unfold.
Here the period is magnificently evoked and clad by Govane Gohbauer in early Elizabethan grandeur, and Illyria is nearby a sea where a shipwreck can separate family members who believe each other dead, a plot often employed by Shakespeare.
In this play, the plot is complicated by having the lost ones be identical twins, save for sex, Viola (Merritt Janson) and Sebastian (Jake Waid), but having Viola dress as a young man to gain employment in the household of Duke Orsino (Duane Allen Robinson).
The Duke is pining with love (and rejection) for a wealthy neighbor, the young and beautiful Olivia (Elizabeth Raetz) who has gone into seven years mourning for the death of a brother, but who very quickly is roused out of her grief when Viola is sent, as a young page with a love message from the Duke
Viola bravely resists Olivia’s very physical, and hysterically funny attempts at seduction; indeed poor Viola, still grieving for her lost twin, has meanwhile fallen in love with the Duke, her employer.
Meanwhile, in Olivia’s household, a comical subplot unfolds as her riotous sponging and drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Nigel Gore) with his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Winkles) who is more of a clowning fool than the house-fool Feste (Robert Biggs) who tends to rational wit, vagrancy and wonderful singing, and Sir Toby is also helped by the witty housemaid Maria (Corinna May) to entrap Olivia’s piously bigoted steward Malvolio ( Ken Cheeseman) who imposes his Puritanical ways on all, in a situation that will undo his wits.
With so many characters entwined in plots that would seem impossible to unravel, especially when both twins weave among its strands, but never at the same time and thus always being mistaken for the other, all the hysteria leading to duels and an unlikely marriage and even another sub plot involving Antonio (Johnny Lee Davenport) a sea-caption who befriends Sebastian.
However, by the last scene in Act V, with all the characters on stage, everything is happily resolved with three sets of happy lovers united and Viola finally “unmasked” but still clad in her boy’s clothes, and only the unloved (by anyone) Malvolio wheeled away.
The play is threaded by music, that of Shakespeare’s verse and songs within the play itself. The melodies have been composed by Robert Biggs, Bill Barclay and Alexander Sovronsky and are mainly sung by Biggs whose ability to get the whole audience joining in singing along with him is the better part of his role (official clown) which in this production seemed usurped by Sir Andrew in his foppish attire.
I found the production delightful and rewarding. Director Jonathan Croy has led his cast well, and also found time to design the suitable, elegant, and flexible scenery.
Viola has the best part and deserved it with her fine acting. Her scenes with Olivia were my favorite ones in the play. But each actor deserves kudos.
This play begins with music and ends with it and we the audience are all glad we have been there and been a part of it. Even the weather cooperated and failed to produce a drop of rain on press night when dire events were again predicted. How lucky we can sometimes get in the Berkshires!