Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage."
As famous quote provider William Shakespeare’s comedy "Twelfth Night" is up near the top of the list and should provide enjoyment enough for several productions, which is a good thing this summer as there have been several from which to choose: Main Street Stage in North Adams, MA, Walking the Dog Theater in Hudson, NY, New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, NYC, Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA and even a rush job production of about twelve minutes contained in the second act of "Leading Ladies" at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon. This review concerns only the Lenox, MA production at Shakespeare and Company.
"If music be the food of love, play on" the show begins and so it is on the Founders’ Theatre stage. With guitar, violin, banjo and flute the players dance their romantic dances while lust rears its hysterical head, emotions blossom and bloom, jealousy rants and raves and lost souls are found in strangely familiar garb. Twins cavort with single charm. Malcontents are brought to smiling, yellowed pleasures and idiots lay claim to knowledge. Servants rule their masters for a while and the passion of one man takes a detour on the road to true love.
The twists and turns of plot are many in this work, one of those "pants" plays that Shakespeare delighted in where a female character masquerades as a male for her safety and then finds herself wedded to the role instead of to the man she loves. "Present mirth hath present laughter," the saying here goes and it is the laughter that this play and its players engender which gets us quickly through the three hours of the play.
Merritt Janson is a precious Viola, who uses the name Caesario to disguise her gender. As wooer of Olivia for the Duke Orsino Janson makes the most of every moment with facial expressions that are as delicious to watch as Shakespeare’s dialogue is to hear. Her duel with Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a comic highlight of choreography and her scenes of lust with Olivia are marvels of comic timing.
Aguecheek is played by Ryan Winkles who plays these fop wonderfully. He has comic poses that would hurt a strutting chicken to endure and he has a knack for pulling faces that should take his acting down a peg but as he performs the role, they seem to be only right for their situations. He is abetted in his playing by Nigel Gore’s marvelous Sir Toby Belch. Gore replaces the usual girth of the man with the breadth of his drinking. Instead of a visual joke we have a more class disoriented performance where the knight has been granted a commoner’s voice and accent and his manners follow suit: privileged class possibilities with a working class attitude.
Olivia, the object of the Duke’s adoration, Sir Andrew’s passionate need and Sir Toby’s relative scorn, is played by Elizabeth Raetz whose acrobatic performance as the young maiden in mourning for her brother while desiring a young man to play with, is nothing short of circus. She starts with scorn and ends with the dance of one besotted with physical anxieties. She is simply hilarious.
Orsino is played by Duane Allen Robinson with a combination of high dudgeon and low desires. "Come away, come away, Death," sings Feste the clown and in Robinson’s playing there is always that sense of something else, something darker and stronger impelling him to find love before it is too late. He is the straight man off whom the comedy bounces. The same could be said for Malvolio, as written, but not necessarily as played by Ken Cheeseman who makes even his costume seem funny. Cheeseman is certainly a welcome addition to the company this year, apparently his first in Lenox since 1989.
Jake Waid is a wonderful Sebastian and Alexander Sovronsky is fine as Fabian. Robert Lohbauer plays Curio to a tee and Corinna May is a perfectly darling Maria whose off-stage laughter is the perfect counterpoint to onstage sobriety, a rare moment of it at least.
Jonathan Croy, who has directed this production, adds a distinctive verve to the proceedings, much as he did the touring company of "Romeo and Juliet" which played here earlier in the season. His own special comic timing has been willed into the players and the second half of the show is almost non-stop farce in its pacing and its unanticipated activities. He gives the comedy back to Shakespeare and together they deliver it to the audience through their designated instruments, the actors in character.
While three hours may seem long for a comedy, time rushes by in the second act and feels only as long as any favorite laugher-ridden piece. As starter Shakespeare it couldn’t be better and for those who are jaded about the Bard and his oeuvre it’s a wonderful new beginning. As Feste says, "There is no darkness but ignorance." Step into the light, folks.
Elizabeth Raetz and Merritt Janson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Ken Cheeseman as Malvolio; photo: Kevin Sprague
Corinna May and Ryan Winkles; photo: Kevin Sprague
Twelfth Night plays at Shakespeare and Company’s Founders Theatre, 40 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA, through September 5 in repertory. Consult their schedule for actual playing dates and times. Tickets may be purchased by contacting their box office at 413-637-3353 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.