BWW Review: 20/20 Vision Does A Double Take During TWELFTH NIGHT at The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse is greeting 2020 with the perfect play for a new decade of doubled-up dates: Twelfth Night, which is the story of a pair of separated twins who find their way back to each other, and to new love, in increasingly hilarious situations. The play opens with a bright, wistful song that fills the small space with a bit of opening-up-the-cover-of-a-fairy-tale-book magic. Feste, the wise fool of the show played by Matt Nitchie, strums a guitar on a dark stage to begin the tale of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian.
His song soon gets lost in the sounds of a horrendous storm that sweeps across the stage and rocks actors from this side to that and back again. The use of over-exaggerated slow motion, darting and flashing lighting effects, and booming waves and thunder gives an excellent sense of a terrible storm that isn't quite so terrible that it's going to kill any of the characters. While the transition from song to storm is smooth, the transition from storm to sand is a bit awkward as actors suddenly stop rocking to jump up and run off stage or switch from lying on one side of the stage to the other.
Rachel Frawley's Viola is fantastic to watch as she awkwardly limbos her way around all of the crisscrossed affections of court life. It is interesting to watch how different Frawley performed as Viola versus Viola impersonating Cesario. Frawley seems to lean into new confidence after the literal weight of her curly wig had been lifted and she donned Cesario's britches. While it is undeniably difficult to balance the duality of the role, I think the final transition from Cesario to Viola is less graceful than the first transition from Viola to Cesario. Perhaps Frawley's Viola has grown too comfortable wearing pants to fully return to a life of skirts, or perhaps Viola's charade had unlocked some inherent masculinity she possessed and is keeping.
Viola and Orsino, played by Marlon Burnley, have adorable chemistry; and, Oliva and Sebastian, played by India Tyree and Jon Wierenga respectively, are just as heart-warming. The two couples mirror each other fantastically in costumes, mannerisms, and intensity of both confusion and passion. Viola and Orsino's almost kiss is followed up by awkward lunges that are almost too cute to bear. Oliva and Sebastian's whirlwind wedding feels like a triumph as the two end up with the right lover.
I wasn't expecting to be so enamored with the antagonist of the play, but gosh darn it, Jacob York's Malvolio is such a lovably pompous character that I got excited every time he stepped on stage. York's vocal quality is astounding in its consistency, dexterity, and range. He maintains a loftily pompous accent while in court and around others, but with us, he drops it to show his true colors and intentions in a disarmingly vulnerable way. The audience, although aware of the trick being played on him, silently roots for him as he reads the fake love letter and becomes excited to fall in love and rise above his station. Malvolio's entrance to show off his new cross-garters is the same shade of comedic gold as his new yellow stockings. While he is imprisoned, I wanted nothing more than to go up and hug the poor, silly man even.
Shakespeare's Elizabethan jokes can be difficult to convey to modern audiences but the clowns of this performance seem either not to care about the antiquated language or simply to trust themselves enough to be entertaining without being fully understood, judging by the gleeful speed at which they deliver the jokes. All of them together are electric and you can feel the audience engage with their antics as we wait with bated breath to see what would happen next. Each scene was side-splitting in a new way, from drunken rabble-rousers singing in the night to crafty servants plotting the downfall of their puritanical nemesis.
David Weber as Sir Toby Belch and Megan Rose as Maria had undeniably fun sexual tension and the addition of Avery Sharpe as Sir Andrew Aguecheek seals the deal to the brilliant comedy of all three characters on stage. Sharpe's innate talent for physical humor creates new levels for jokes to be told as he leaps into the air or tumbles down steps.
Sitting in the audience, I couldn't tell if Sharpe's dancing antics during Sir Andrew Aguecheek's first entrance are intentional or not because of how enthusiastically the audience interacted with him. What started as a few stray claps for high-kicks quickly became synchronized clapping and stomping in the electric way only a dancer egged on by the audience can keep up. Weber as Sir Belch calmed the audience before Sharpe tired himself out, much to the disappointment of a few zealous audience members.
Throughout the play, there are select moments of breaks in the 4th wall, but the most delightful was a moment with Adam King as Fabian where he turns to face the audience, looks us square in the eye, and tells us how if what was happening to him now were on a stage then he'd write it off as a crazy story if he was watching. The characters on stage roll their eyes as the audience's giggles turn into belly-laughs.
The duel between Viola/Cesario and Sir Andrew that ends the third act could very well be one of the funniest fights I've seen on stage. At the very least, it makes my top five. The fight starts off strong with an obviously lewd joke in which the two duelers compare swords, Viola holding a grand long sword while Sir Andrew draws a small dagger. The heat of battle is punctuated by punches to the groin that Viola took much longer to react to than Sir Andrew. He gives her a quick punch to the chest, however, and that evens the score. The whole fiasco ends with both fighters backstroking across the stage to get away from danger as officers of the law appear. I, and a good many other audience members I suspect, was literally crying with laughter as the fight broke up.
Few moments on stage have the same sort of satisfaction as characters on stage finally, finally seeing what you've known all along. With finger guns drawn and inadvertently aimed at each other, Viola and Sebastian's reunion was wonderful as it slowly dawned on the two why so many people seemed to know them when they had obviously never met before. Put perfectly by Tyree as Oliva, it was "most wonderful."
The characters in this show have absolutely no reservations about direct audience interaction. This is especially true for the fool Feste and that may just be because of how comfortable Matt Nitchie is breaking the 4th wall. His frequent nods and side-long glances to the audience are topped when he walks out into the audience while singing, stops to have a moment with one of the audience members, and then proceeds to pick up their beer glass and finish off their drink before continuing on with his song. Nitchie's bold disregard for cooties is an absolute treat.
For all the mirth the show had as a whole, two particular dark spots stood out in stark contrast. If the rest of the actors paint the stage in large swaths of bright yellow, mischievous green, fiery red, electric orange, and whimsical purple then Jacob York and Matt Nitchie as Malvolio and Feste, paint in large, black splotches whenever they share the stage. I couldn't shake the feeling that the two had performed together in a tragedy and carried that same weight from their previous show into this one. Feste taunting Malvolio in the dungeon made me worried about the pompous jailbird even though there was no real threat to him. The final scene in which Malvolio pointedly swears revenge against Feste and the others who tricked him is so intense that audience members gasp and quietly murmur to each other as an air of unease sweeps into the room. It seems strange to me that such a bubbly comedy would have such cold shadows without the death of a character.
India Tyree as Olivia handled the extreme passions and sudden mood swings of the character with a practiced deftness; however, all that fluctuating often leaves her literally breathless. There were more than a few times that I lost her very last bits of dialogue because she had literally run out of steam. There is one moment in particular as she pours her heart out to a confused Viola that her loud gasps for air in-between words make me worried she might pass out.
Finally, the play ends with Feste singing to us again alone on a dark stage. His wistful voice and surrounding dimness gave me the feeling of the end of a fairytale. As if the last chapters of a storybook had been read to me and now it was time for the lights to be turned out so that I could fall asleep and dream about what had happened.
TWELFTH NIGHT is playing at The Atlanta Shakespeare Company now through January 26th and is a Suzi Bass Awards Recommended Show. This production is appropriate for most ages and you can check here to make the decision for your family or your classroom. There is a cast and crew Q&A on January 19th following the show. Get your tickets here - new student ticket prices are available.