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BWW Reviews: Nola Project's TWELFTH NIGHT is a Work of Art at NOMA

If you're wondering whether you should go see the NOLA Project's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), I'll make it easy for you: go see Twelfth Night. It's the perfect escape during the holidays if sugarplum faeries and Christmas ghosts are not your thing.

Twelfth Night is the story of twins whose ship sinks during an ocean storm, and the sister, Viola (Kristin Witterschein), washes up on the beaches of Illyria thinking her brother, Sebastian (Joel Derby), has drowned. With no personal possessions left and in a strange land, she decides to dress as a man and join the service of Illyria's Duke Orsino (James Bartelle). She quickly finds out two things: one, the Duke is in love with Countess Olivia (Cecile Monteyne), and two, Viola is herself in love with the Duke.

Also pining for Olivia is Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Sam Dudley), a fact which Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch (Jared Gore) uses to his advantage when Olivia's officious servant Malvolio (Keith Claverie) tries to put a damper on their late night partying. Toby and Andrew conspire with Olivia's maidservant Maria (Danielle Doyen) to make an epic fool out of Malvolio. A counterfeit letter convinces Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him, and gets him to behave so strangely that Olivia fears for his mental health. Naturally, Toby, Andrew, Maria, Fabian and the court jester Feste (Jake Bartush) are more than happy to help scare some sense back into Malvolio.

Meanwhile Sebastian comes ashore with sea captain and now devoted friend, Antonio (Kurt Owens), who saved him from the shipwreck. Everyone who runs into Sebastian treats him as if he is Cesario, and when Antonio runs into Viola/Cesario, he thinks she is Sebastian. This, of course, leads to a lot of comical complications. The fact that Witterschein and Derby look nothing like one another (except for their), and he's easily a foot or so taller than she is, just makes the whole "mistaken identities" thing that much more hilarious. The fact that the rest of the cast wholeheartedly plays along with the charade and is astonished by the big reveal at the end makes it all the funnier.

If you have never witnessed Shakespeare inside of NOMA, you are missing out on a delightful treat. NOLA Project is becoming renowned all over the city of New Orleans for producing many of the Bard's famous works, and Twelfth Night can now be added to their repertoire. What NOLA Project does very effectively is boil down theatrical storytelling to its most basic building blocks-the actors and the text. And when the script is this fun, and the actors are this good, well then, what more do you need? It's very easy to see the action without the aid of a set, starting with the shipwreck as waving blue fabric spills down the grand stairs of the Great Hall, leading into the actor's playing space in the center of the seats. While this is primarily theatre in the round, the actors make use of the entire space, playing in the aisles, the balcony above and even the great columns to use whilst spying on one another. A scene worth mentioning is the sword fight between Sir Andrew and Viola, where the trembling from the two actors had the audience in hysterics as both were reluctant to take part in a duel they had been tricked into. In the end that is what it boils down to by having the actors find the funny moments in the text, which will bring the story alive to the audience.

Director A.J. Allegra also gets his energetic ensemble zipping from one scene into the next-someone heads off over there, someone else appears over here, keeping the flow of the performance moving along at a pace that's perfect for keeping this romantic comedy light and fun. Rather than seeming breathless, it's more like breathing out a happy sigh.

There were some stunning performances throughout the evening, including Dudley as the over-the-top Sir Andrew Arguecheek who was a firm favorite with the audience, with his very camp mannerisms and excited behavior. A stand out performance was given by Cecile Monteyne, who brought to life the character of Olivia with her over-the-top girlish eagerness to win Viola/Cesario's love.

Claverie achieved both laughs and sympathy for his Malvolio, who may be a no-nonsense Puritan, but who also suffers cruelly for his misplaced ambition.

The cast as a whole is a great ensemble, and it was delightful to see actors from prior NOLA Project Shakespeare productions perform once more in the Great Hall of NOMA. Overall this production of Shakespeare was indeed a work of art.

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From This Author Tara Bennett

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