The key to an appreciation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the subtitle. The play is quite the mixture of slapstick and sentiment, and rarely do the two commingle. If the styles didn’t lie easily side by side in ShakespeareNYC’s production, it was still a pleasure to see them handled so adroitly, each in its turn.
Illyria seems to be a smoothly run sort of place, which leaves the Duke, Orsino (Benjamin Rishworth) to moon about music and Olivia. It’s a good thing Olivia (Katherine Kelly Lidz) has a title and money, so she can endlessly pine for her dead father and brother. The entrance of the recently shipwrecked (but unwet) Viola (Kristen Hammer) immediately gives the production a center of gravity, and sanity. Which is a good thing, because with the Sirs Toby Belch (Geoffrey Dawe) and Andrew Aguecheek (Jonathan J. Lidz) on hand as a kind of Elizabethan Laurel and Hardy (or Abbott and Costello, if you will) Illyria might be more than tempted to go off the deep end. The solidity of Hammer’s Viola was appealing and comforting and human -- she’s practically the only character in the play not interested in putting something over on someone else. Well, except for pretending to be a man, but that’s for survival. Or maybe her spiritual generosity is genetic, since her twin brother, Sebastian (Simon Peter Shea), also has a knack for innocently engaging the affections of others.
But there’s lots else going on, and a strong cast made the most of it all. As Belch, Dawe seemed to grab the text, the character, the other actors, and practically the set in his teeth, with the delight of a baby who has just discovered that he can get away with more than he ever imagined. Gregg Dubner’s Malvolio, while a deadly serious sourpuss, had the dignity and grace of one who truly doesn’t understand why others don’t see things and understand them the way he does. He got the loneliness too, and Dubner was so good it was a shame that when he was locked up in darkness, he was out of sight of the audience as well -- because above all he was funny. So was the jester Feste (Marc Greece), a fine compatriot to Toby and Andrew, adding fun (and balance) to their revels. Nicholas Stannard made Fabian an equal partner to the jesting, which is all the more remarkable since Fabian is usually an afterthought. Peter Herrick’s Antonio brought mystery and heart in his too-few appearances. They all deserve plays of their own -- both characters and actors.
But the center was Viola, and Hammer’s longing, confusion, and heartfelt emotion was pure and simple. Director Beverly Bullock trusted Shakespeare (thankfully) and trusted her actors (with good reason), but her hand was still evident throughout, most tellingly in the small details she included. An uncertain Cesario started to exit in one direction, stopped, and exited the other way; Malvolio limped off (well, he had rushed to chase down Cesario); applause before the end of one of Feste’s songs; Malvolio losing control of his walking stick -- these and numerous other bits revealed character, gave added depth to the text, and were a delight to watch.
The overall production design was also credited to Bullock. Costumes were glorious, lighting unobtrusive. The set, modeled after a monastery in Dubrovnik, looked fine, but seemed rather heavy and immobile for such a light piece as Twelfth Night. But when the chaos of misunderstandings and mistaken identities cleared and emotion filled Viola, her glow so effused the surroundings it wouldn’t have mattered if it were set in a back alley.
Also with David Blatt, John Montague, Debra Zane, and Gretchen Howe, all of whom had moments of their own.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler