BWW Reviews: TWELFTH NIGHT is Perfect at the Folger
Whether you are a fan of Shakespeare or stay away from his plays, I have a simple request: Get to Twelfth Night at the Folger Theatre. Lovers of Shakespeare's witty, topsy-turvy comedy have reason to rejoice. But skeptical theatre-goers who expect something stuffy, dry, and inaccessible should be soundly converted.
As directed by Robert Richmond and featuring one of the finest acting ensembles around, Twelfth Night is simply perfection.
Folger's Elizabethan stage is transformed into an intimate impression of Great Britain, with echoes of "Downton Abbey," circa 1912-15. Scenic designer Tony Cisek's exquisite set is dominated by a gorgeous staiNed Glass disk and plenty of room for the romantic comedy to weave its spell on the characters and the audience. Andrew F. Griffin's lighting design adds clarity to the story-telling and thoroughly enhances Cisek's set design. Likewise, Mariah Hale's costumes lend period flavor and detail in which the actors thrive.
Resetting the play in the early 1900s serves Shakespeare's text and the fully realized concept Richmond has envisioned. The class structure and formal wooing of suitors was still very much in vogue during this time. Richmond also uses a stylistic sinking of the S.S. Lusitania as a starting point, a brilliant conceit given that Twelfth Night opens with a shipwreck that separates twin sister and brother Viola (Emily Trask) and Sebastian (William Vaughn).
Period music (from Satie to early 20th century popular tunes) is used, as well as delightful new versions of Shakespeare's songs from the play to punctuate the story. Matthew Nielson provides valuable original compositions and serves as the sound designer. Between scenes, the actors swirl across the stage, specters from the time of high collars, and high style during the time of George V.
Like an old-fashioned parlor entertainment, Richmond places a musician onstage - complete with a Gilded Age piano - who becomes part of nearly every scene. Joshua Morgan multitasks skillfully as the musical director, accompanist and steps into character several times throughout the evening.
Twelfth Night, with love at first sight, disguises, assumptions, and a general feeling of misrule, is one of my personal favorites among Shakespeare's confections. In Richmond's program notes, he suggests "What You Will," Shakespeare's subtitle for Twelfth Night, might be more aptly named "What You Wish," since many of the characters have deep-seated desires that drive the play's comic and romantic engine.
The plot is structured around Viola's journey after being washed ashore in Illyria, thinking her brother perished in the shipwreck. She falls in love with Orsino (Michael Bruscano), who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful but inaccessible Olivia (Rachel Pickup). Viola disguises herself as a boy and as Cesario helps woo Olivia for Orsino. Olivia becomes smitten with Cesario. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, her kinsman Toby (Craig Wallace) pushes wealthy goofball Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Konicek) as a suitor for Olivia but she's not interested. Toby and Olivia's servant, Maria (Tonya Beckman), also live to torture the household steward, Malvolio (Richard SheriDan Willis).
Oh, yes, and Sebastian is really still alive, saved from drowning by the sailor Antonio (Chris Genebach). Sebastian shows up in Illyria, too, looking like the spitting image of Cesario/Viola. You get the picture. Happy endings abound for just about everyone, except for the maligned and humiliated Malvolio.
Presiding over these Shakespearean shenanigans is Feste who, on paper, is listed as Olivia's household fool, who also entertains at Duke Orsino's house. In Richmond's fabulous concept, Feste serves as an omniscient master of ceremonies who steps in and out of character, confides in the audience and orchestrates the proceedings like a cross between a huckster and a musical hall comedian. Louis Butelli handles all of Feste's duties with wicked charm and effortless stage presence. His delicious performance of Matthew Nielson's new setting of Feste's song "Hey, ho, the wind and the rain" is a highlight.