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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Twelfth Night, Or What You Will
By DL Simmons

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.— Feste
Steven Barkhimer, Nigel Gore and Gregory BooveTjam
Shipwrecks, gender switch-ups and star-crossed lovers: it must be Shakespeare Season. To kick off Shakespeare & Company's 2019 summer festival, Twelfth Night gets right down to business. With this romantic farce involving mistaken identity and nonstop frivolity, returning director Allyn Burrows gooses nearly every laugh with a feathery touch. It certainly tickles the audience.

A veteran not just of Shakespeare & Co. but of previous productions of Twelfth Night, Burrows gets cheeky with the text right away. Transporting the original setting — a seaport on the rugged Balkan coast — to a beachside music hall on the cusp of the 1960s, he finds opportunities galore to set verse to early rock ‘n' roll licks. While Burrows' interpretation is not quite a musical, he frequently uses live music for its own organic purposes. Thankfully he doesn't wear out the conceit. (He's aided by several gifted cast members who sing and ably play a trunkful of instruments.) When was the last time thou hearest a cowbell in association with iambic pentameter?

Originally conceived as a holiday play, Twelfth Night mirrors the pageantry leading up to the Candlemas feast at the end of Christmastide. (And with the air conditioning at the Packer Playhouse running full blast, it feels a lot more like yuletide inside than midsummer.) In short, orphaned shipwreck survivor Viola impersonates a man and eventually wins the affection of Duke Orsino, the man who employs her — but not before the object of her boss's affection, Countess Olivia, falls for Viola in her male disguise. To complicate matters, Olivia's opportunistic twin brother Sebastian, presumed drowned, surfaces and reaps the erotic fervor of his sister's suitor. Rest assured, façades fall away and everyone hooks up. Merry Christmas, swingers!

As imagined by set designer Cristina Todesco, the revisionist setting is a velvety, sumptuous ballroom. Her black/white checkerboard dance floor and surrounding bistro tables are cloaked in lush red curtains and vinyl booths, with wrought-iron stairs spiraling from the balcony. (The audience forms a horseshoe around the stage on both levels.) Deb Sullivan's balmy lighting, at its most evocative, bathes the dance hall in lusty reds and seafoam blues whenever the drama allows her to set the mood.

With such a capacious playground, the actors can't really be faulted for playing to the rafters. Clowns they are, perhaps for our sake more than their own. Practically every line is accompanied by extreme body language or an amusing physical tic. And while some of the excessive gesticulating borders on mannered frivolity, the energy invested by the cast is considerable and much appreciated.

Excelling at all this sustained silliness are the story's biggest fools, embodied by Steven Barkhimer (Sir Toby Belch), Nigel Gore (Sir Andrew) and Miles Anderson (persnickety manservant Malvolio). All three are seasoned character actors who know how to milk a funny role, and the horse-laughter they elicit underscores that ability. In particular, Gore perfects the dimwit-in-a-safari-hat character we've seen in countless Australian comedies. Barkhimer, in character, could pass for Larry Fine of The Three Stooges at his breeziest. Anderson's malcontent Malvolio, with his crisp elocution and compact stature, could be the most tightly wound villager in any given Mel Brooks picture. Bravos to all three.

Special recognition also goes to Gregory Boover (Feste) as the gangliest, goofiest court jester/crooner/guitarist on this or any boardwalk. He provides much of the heavy lifting in terms of story structure, in addition to serving as musical director. As a comic actor who specializes in herky-jerky dork roles, he gets a workout in this play.

Of the four "leads," Cloteal L. Horne (Olivia) and Bryce Michael Wood (Duke Orsino) have the most fun with their roles. Wood is sleek and slinky, a self-amused jazz cat prowling on twinkle toes. Horne has such refined stage carriage, it's a welcome surprise when she drops the hoity-toity pretense and pounces with orgasmic abandon. Ella Loudon and Deaon Griffin Pressley, as twins Viola and Sebastian, are more restrained by their roles, as if appearing incognito hinders their inner buffoonery. The willowy Loudon would be an ideal ingénue were she not playing a stiff dude for most of the play.

As Maria the handmaiden, Bella Merlin has several fine moments, including a giggle fit that's funnier than the object of her derision. But unlike her castmates' attire, Merlin's wardrobe does her no favors. Costumer Govane Lohbauer's pleated skirts and pedal pushers look fashionably sexy on Horne, but Merlin's similar garments look neither matronly nor comical. While the other characters court and sparkle in appropriate late '50s attire, poor Maria looks like she cuts loose by shopping at Chico's.

Alas, where there's sizzle, there's fizzle. Post-intermission, the cast's effervescence shows signs of flop sweat. Burrows' direction has been so hyperactive up to this point, we forget we're watching a 400-year-old play. Its age catches up in the creaky homestretch, when the plot's elaborate machinations threaten the stamina of audience and company alike. The antics abate, the music disappears and the final act can't get here fast enough. Fortunately it arrives in the nick of time, restoring the pace and good humor so evident in the play's first half — and sending the characters (and theater goers) off into the night with a spring in their step.

Additional plays in Shakespeare & Co.'s summer lineup include The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Coriolanus. The prolific master came to be known as The Bard of Avon. If the theater company that bears his name keeps up this pace, one day we might call him The The Netflix of Lenox.

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Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare
Directed by Allyn Burrows
Cast: Ella Loudon (Viola) Cloteal L. Horne (Olivia) Bryce Michael Wood (Duke Orsino) Deaon Griffin-Pressley (Sebastian) Bella Merlin (Maria) Miles Anderson (Malvolio) Steven Barkhimer (Sir Toby Belch) Gregory Boover (Feste) Nigel Gore (Andrew Aguecheek) Martin Jason Asprey (Antonio/Sea Captain)
Voice Coach: Ariel Bock
Movement Director: Susan Dibble
Set Designer: Cristina Todesco
Costume Designer: Govane Lohbauer
Lighting Designer: Deb Sullivan
Sound Designer & Composer: Arshan Gailus
Music Director: Gregory Boover
Running time: 165 minutes; one intermission
Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer Playhouse
From 7/2/19; closing 8/4/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at July 6 performance

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