With wit and jest

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jami Lee Gertz
Blunder Productions
American Theater of Actors (636-9630)
314 West 54th Street
Equity showcase (through Dec. 2)
Review by David Mackler

Blunder Productions has done a tremendous service to Shakespeare and Twelfth Night by taking the play very seriously at the same time as taking it not seriously at all. There was great fun in their production, but never at the expense of the play or ol' Bill.

Director Jami Lee Gertz set the play in an Illyria of nonspecific time and place, unadorned except for some Japanese lanterns, a bench or two, and a seemingly bottomless vat of a rather strong punch (set design uncredited). But more importantly, she has achieved a balance between characters, which allowed each of the talented cast to make full use of his or her moments. This is not The Viola and Orsino Show, nor was it the Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek Hour. Rather, as one scene led into the next and plot threads were augmented, the play was allowed to reveal itself. These actors listened to each other and spoke with purpose, all for the greater good of the humor and sentimentality of the play.

At the beginning an announcement was made that the actor playing Feste is filling in for the indisposed Travis Tritt. Well, why not, and when Johnny Kinnard made his entrance it was with guitar and song. His fine guitar playing was used very effectively, as befits a country & western troubadour. Orsino (Alan Steele) was mooning over Olivia (Thanis Samantha Barrios) again, and this court was clearly tired of hearing it. Barrios seemed more unpleasant than mournful at first, but she turned wickedly funny as she pursued Cesario/Viola, even triumphing over an odd pink dress in the second act. Sir Toby (Brian Pracht) and Sir Andrew (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) were a nicely funny comedy duo and played well off each other, each baiting the other but clearly enjoying their comradeship. Barnes was an adept physical comedian, which made forgivable his somewhat inexplicable accent.

Rob Brown's Malvolio was more unhappy and angry than actually evil, but that worked superbly in his favor when he became the butt of Maria's joke. Brown was so good that he was simultaneously touching and funny even when he was simply an offstage voice under the stairs when he was being tormented. He also managed to be both piqued and dignified when dressed in a union suit. As Maria, Abigail Bailey deserved a play all her own. Maria, like Juliet's nurse, is a foolproof part, but Bailey nailed every moment in every scene - she was delicious outlining the plot to torment Malvolio, and she was clearly in charge of Olivia's household in her sexy business suit. This kind of strength is what gave the play its balance, and it was sustained by JC Cantu in a moving performance that gave Sebastian more weight and importance than is usually seen, and by Ben Nordstrom as Antonio, so clearly in love with Sebastian that it's too bad Shakespeare wasn't around to expand his part.

Ashley Green was a very fey and very funny Fabian, and his by-play with Bailey was superb (actually, everyone was even better in scenes with Bailey). Gerti Lee James as Viola was a bit stiff physically but she was earnest and full of real emotion. It was quite touching when "Cesario" put on "Viola's" old shawl intending to present herself to Orsino - and then changed her mind, putting Cesario's coat back on. Similarly, she was very effective in the twin-plot resolution, making the happy ending quite moving.

Costuming was colorful and effective, from Malvolio's union suit to the olive-drab outfits for the undercover activity of Toby and Andrew to Maria's sexy nightdress - it all served the purpose of plot and provided for good comedy. The lighting (Brian Grabowski) was simple and unadorned. With lots of fine comic business for everyone in full service to the play, this was as good an entertainment as must have been way back when for the Queen's court.

Also with Claire Evans.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 David Mackler