Even by Shakespeare standards Twelfth Night keeps many plates spinning. Taking place on the twelfth night after Christmas Day, as evidenced by the numerous Christmas trees and festive decorations on the set. The play is cleverly set in a Downton Abbey Edwardian England setting. The full weight of this choice is bolstered by Lauren Wilcher’s beautiful costuming.
The plot follows Viola (Jessica Frey), an aristocratic woman who is shipwrecked in a foreign land and who assumes her twin brother, Sebastian (Carl Howell), is dead. She disguises herself as a man and is brought in to the foreign court, disguised as a eunuch, to work for Duke Orsinio. Orsinio is desperately in love with Lady Olivia (Katie Hartke), who is in mourning and spurns his advances. Orsinio sends Viola to court the Lady for him. She does so, but perhaps too well as Lady Olivia falls swiftly in love with the disguised Viola. Complicating things even further, Viola is smitten with Orsinio.
During this time Sir Toby (Charlie Murphy) helps his pathetic friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Quinn) woo the Lady Olivia. They also find time, with the aid of Maria, a waiting gentlewoman, to pull a prank on Lady Olivia’s pretentious manservant, Malvolio ( Brian McManamon). All these happenings are observed and somewhat curated by Feste (Christian Adam Jacobs), the house jester. The play ends happily, with Sebastian happening into Lady Olivia’s house, where she confuses him for his twin sister Viola, and they immediately marry. Then, revealed as twins, Viola throws away her disguise and marries Duke Orsinio. Thankfully in Twelfth Night half the fun is sorting out the plot threads from one another and seeing the playwright, and the performers, juggle numerous conflicts at any given moment.
All script edits were done with respect for the playwright, keeping poetic integrity and moments of gravity. Hartke’s Olivia was a perfect rendering of “celebrities, they’re just like us.” Never falling into romantic comedy antics, her nobility as queen contending with her urges to pursue the disguised Viola were adorable and human.
Frey’s Viola, though easily the central character with the least levity, never felt like a burden. Her managing of her situation and conflicts were paired beautifully with eloquent and forceful renderings of Shakespeare’s text. Any time these women performed across from each other the play found a beautiful and grounded center.
McManamon played Malvolio, as a foppish dandy. Cartoonish in many respects, his Malvolio was able to endear himself to the audience while allowing the character to remain someone whose downfall shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
The rest of the cast managed their double, or triple duties with ease, quite the feat considering the nature of the play. Howell performs Maria, Sebastian, and Valentine. Though no fault of his, something is lost with Maria not being present as a female performer. Camaraderie among genders could be a very relevant theme in this play, and while his performance was honest, that effect was sacrificed. His execution is not at fault, and in his transitions between Maria’s endearment and Sebastian’s earnestness, rich characterizations weren’t lost.
Ryan Quinn, also the company’s artistic director, plays the two enamored with Olivia, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Duke Orsino. Sir Andrew is performed, as are the others of the pranking crew, with a sitcom simplicity. His Orsinio, however, is someone who took pains to inform you of their depth. Rather than a whipped and whimpering Duke, his Orsinio’s passions are more related to high philosophical romance. This leads us to believe that his relationship with Viola might be founded on sturdy emotional ground.
Murphy performs Sir Toby with the camaraderie of an overgrown frat boy. His warmth held sincerity but it’s a character whose emotional depths only come in a wicked hangover near the plays final moments. Murphy also plays Antonio, Sebastian’s friend, a small role, but a role which has the uncomfortable task of bringing gravity to the play’s fun reveals. His confusion and outrage near the end held their own without outweighing the finale’s sense of joy.
Lastly there is the apparently inexhaustible Christian Adam Jacobs as Feste and numerous side characters. He performed musical numbers, accompanying himself on guitar, delivered Shakespeare’s tangle of wit with effortless ease, and did all of this at a breakneck pace. Much like Puck his presence can become too consuming, but the craft is incredible regardless.
While Midsummer might extend its comedy away from laughter and towards wistful magic, Twelfth Night is a kaleidoscope of laughter. If you enjoy the surprise of seeing someone usually reserved lose all common sense, Olivia’s plight is for you. If you like to see the pretentious fall, then the Sir Toby gang is where you’re going to land. While Toby’s frat boy gang, a la Animal House, was never my humor, I could tell by the overwhelming laughter of the audience around me, many of them students, the jokes were undoubtedly landing.
Moments of abstract staging come and go through the performance, and they remain unnecessary. The musical moments, composed by Christian Adam Jacobs and Carl Howell, are somewhat cumbersome in execution, pulling focus from the plot without entirely stepping out of it. This showcase of talent reaches further towards exhibiting talent than the moment in drama. Yet, these complaints are brief distractions from a spectacular production performed by artists who have a heartfelt and intelligent adoration of Shakespeare. A rare production that can serve both as an engaging entrance to the bard’s work, and a satisfying performance for those devotees who wish to see him done well.