Review: TWELFTH NIGHT at Seattle Shakespeare

The production runs through May 21st.

By: Apr. 30, 2023
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Review: TWELFTH NIGHT at Seattle Shakespeare
Pilar O'Connell as Maria (foreground) and
Alexandria J. Henderson as Cesario (background)
in TWELFTH NIGHT at Seattle Shakespeare
Photo Credit: John Ulman

TWELFTH NIGHT at Seattle Shakespeare is loaded with music, mischief, and magic. With the Bard's trusty plot devices of mistaken identity and a prank gone awry, the show traipses its way through the lives of the Illyrians on the way to their happy endings. Clever lyrics embellish the story, touch the heart, and even drop a few truth bombs about identity. The fun and frivolity are full force in this stellar production of a classic in musical form.

TWELFTH NIGHT follows the people of Illyria. Orsino is in love with Olivia, but she is completely uninterested. He sends his new steward Cesario to woo her. Olivia falls for Cesario who is actually Viola, a recent survivor of a shipwreck that separated her from her brother Sebastian. Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby, decides to have a little fun at the expense of Olivia's steward Malvolio and enlists Olivia's maid Maria in this scheme. Malvolio is duped, and Olivia believing him mad has him locked up. Sir Toby also encourages his friend Sir Andrew to woo Olivia and into a duel with Cesario. Sebastian has also survived the shipwreck and makes his way into town with his friend Antonio. Antonio is arrested for piracy, and Sebastian is mistaken for Cesario. They must unravel the confusion to find the truth and hopefully love.

The cast of TWELFTH NIGHT is a power punch of Seattle favorites. While their individual performances were strong, it was their connection as an ensemble and obvious support for one another that was most noteworthy. Andi Alhadeff as Olivia combined coquettish flirting with a knowing command to make Olivia into the fun countess who knows her own mind. Alexandria J. Henderson as Viola was something special. Viola's angst of identity was displayed with tenderness and compassion. Only the mandates of theater decorum prevented me from giving her all the snaps during her performance of Viola's Soliloquy. Karin Terry as Feste flexed her sizable comedic muscles and brought a little something extra to the part. Her rendition of Is This Not Love illuminated the perils of pigeonholing anyone into a singular box. Hisam Goueli as Orsino was commanding and his confident demeanor made his insouciance toward Olivia's disdain believable. Pilar O'Connell as Maria brought some delightful comedic touches with the most delectable laugh and side eye.

With the entire cast bringing some amazing energy to the stage, the night truly belonged only to one...James Schilling. While it is not unusual for an understudy to be forced into action at the last minute, it is more rare for it to happen for two roles simultaneously and on opening night no less. Not only did Schilling rise to the occasion and deliver both roles with aplomb, but he found extra layers of humor from the forced situation which often had him in the jacket of one character while holding the jacket of the other and addressing it directly. His ability to change his body language, voice, and demeanor back and forth between the two was delightful to watch, and even the other cast members couldn't help but smile (and occasionally applaud along with the audience) at his triumph. How utterly fitting that Schilling would be the one to deliver the famous line, "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em."

Scenic Design by Parmida Ziaei put the show squarely in Seattle with carefully selected details that made a big impact. Jocelyne Fowler turned out a blend of modern and timeless looks in her costume design that played with pattern and texture and gave each character a look that accentuated their identity. I was especially drawn to the tailored suits worn by Viola and Sebastian that "suited" them both so well. With the forced revamping into a staged concert due to illness we lost almost all of the choreography of Kathryn Van Meter which is truly a loss, doubly felt by the additional loss of not getting to see Jimmy Shields perform her choreography. He managed to retain a few bits here and there that made a tantalizing temptation to return and see the show in its full state. Listening to the band led by R.J. Tancioco would be worth the ticket price alone. They were simply smashing. The revamped show also lost what were surely many thoughtful touches by director Ruben Van Kempen; what was presented revealed a show that was deeply invested in the story and a cast deeply in tune with each other.

When illness hits a cast, sometimes a show must pivot. And occasionally the new improvised plan reveals a special spark, a bit of magic, that did not exist in the original. While it would be interesting to see what the full vision was, I, in no way, felt cheated with what I got. Quite the opposite, I already feel the pangs of loss for those that won't get to experience the magic of Schilling's work as two characters at once, and the freedom of the actors without their set blocking. The forced changes breathed new life and excitement into the show like a new babe drawing its first breath and exclaiming its arrival. On opening night, Seattle Shakespeare created something new and fresh in its reimagined presentation, and I am delighted that I got to witness their little bit of magic that graced the stage that night.