In refusing to take itself seriously, the riotous production of "Twelfth Night" now running at Allens Lane Theater takes on a special radiance.
In refusing to take itself seriously, the riotous production of "Twelfth Night" now running at Allens Lane Theater takes on a special radiance. Shakespeare's masterpiece is full of ideas, but director Ryan Walter puts all attention on the play's anarchistic comedy. Shakespeare's ideas shine through anyway.
The plot involves a preposterous love triangle in the fictional land of Illyria. Duke Orsino (Matthew Carter) charges Cesario (Britt Fauzer) to plead his love for Olivia (Jackie Marino-Thomas). But Cesario is shipwrecked Viola, dressed up as a boy. Olivia rejects Orsino but falls in love with his emissary, Cesario. Then Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino.
Initially, Viola disguises herself as a boy so she can freely search Illyria for her shipwrecked brother, Sebastian. The mistaken identity plot quickly grows so byzantine everyone's state of "being in love" is untrue. Only Viola knows the truth, but even she cannot untangle her ruse: "It is too hard a knot for me to untie."
Only some action takes place on stage proper. Allens Lane's cozy supper club springs to life as director Walter uses the entire physical plant. Many scenes play out along both walls and in the center aisles. It is as though the production is so bursting with comic energy no one stage can contain it.
"Twelfth Night" refers to the eve of Epiphany. The holiday reprises the Roman practice of "Saturnalia" during winter solstice when the social order is turned upside down in merriment. Men and women cross-dress; lords and ladies become the servants of their peasants. Shakespeare proceeds in that spirit.
T.J. Zale has all kinds of fun playing Sir Toby Belch, the uncle of Olivia. He pairs up with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Matthew Carter). Both minor nobles risk their standing in Olivia's court with hard drinking and madcap adventures. These rogues team up with mischievous servant Maria (Ifeoluwa Ogunyinka) to play a cruel practical joke on Malvolio.
Josh Hitchens relishes the role of Malvolio, the sourpuss moralizer who scorns merriment (the name suggests ill will). Via the "found letter" device, the rogues convince Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. As in all "Twelfth Night" productions, the scene where Malvolio presents himself to her is so hilarious it threatens to steal the show.
The unifying comedic figure is Feste, perhaps Shakespeare's finest "wise-fool," (Falstaff outgrew the role). All night Jenn Adams, too, has evident fun. Feste pops on and off stage like a pervasive spirit, playing his small guitar to make sad, playful commentary about life and the goings-on at Olivia's court.
"Twelfth Night" Ideas
Questioning the social order in "Twelfth Night" is more than a Saturnalia, one-night stand. The romantic fools are all lords and ladies of the realm. Their inferiors – maid, court fool and court hanger-on figures – understand their silliness. Farcical dress changes underscore the notion of social contrivance.
At the same time, "Twelfth Night" ridicules the folly of social ambition. Malvolio leaps at the chance to transcend his humble status as a court counselor. His moralizing also reflects Shakespeare's scorn for emerging English Puritanism. Malvolio's final words are, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." (In historical retrospect, he was.)
But Shakespeare's biggest target is the idea of romantic love. No one in the play is crazy, but their infatuations are so mercurial they present as a kind of insanity, occurring suddenly and surprisingly like summer thunderstorms. Characters "fall out of love" just as easily.
Finally, "Twelfth Night" seems modern, indeed, in its depiction of sex and gender identity as fluid. Antonio's interest in Sebastian (Eliza Waterman) is homoerotic. Orsino eventually "falls in love" with Viola, but seems to be in no hurry for her to dispense with her Cesario, boys' clothes.
Ideas are there, but the show is so joyously playful you scarcely notice. Actors ad-lib side remarks under their breath. They break the "fourth wall" from time to time and mingle with the audience before and after the show. Unlike most parties you have been to, this one is a lot of fun.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. "Twelfth Night" will run through June 4. Tickets available at 215-248-0546, or at allenslane.org