BWW Review: Stratford Festival Opens its 65th Season with a Splendid Production of TWELFTH NIGHT

The 65th season of the Stratford Festival officially opened on Monday night with a production of William Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT. Director, Martha Henry has assembled a fabulous group of players and they do not disappoint. Just the thought of Geraint Wyn Davies, Tom Rooney, and Brent Carver sharing comedic scenes together had me rushing to the Festival Theatre to see this play. All three are as fantastic as one could hope for, but everyone else is equally as enchanting in their roles.

The play opens with nobleman, Orsino (played by E.B. Smith) overhearing a song from Feste the fool (played brilliantly by Carver). This song becomes background music to a lovesick Orsino as he pines over Olivia (Shannon Taylor), a Countess who is currently grieving the deaths of her father and brother. Orsino is determined to win Olivia's love and wants his men to continue to try to court her on his behalf-despite her refusal to hear from any of them thus far. Throughout the play, Smith is able to masterfully balance Orsino's chauvinism, ego, charm and almost childlike understanding of love, in a way that allows the audience to root for him to find his happy ending.

In the next scene, we are introduced to our protagonist, Viola, played by the resplendent Sarah Afful. Viola is a young woman of the upper class who has been shipwrecked in a place called Illyria, and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Michael Blake). Believing her brother to be dead, Viola concludes that in order to survive in Illyria, she must disguise herself as a boy and make herself useful. She endears herself to Orsino and takes on the task of delivering his words of love to Olivia. Afful and Taylor play off each other well as Viola (disguised as a youth named Cesario) is persistent in her attempts to woo Viola on behalf of Orsino, only for Olivia to end up falling for Cesario. As Olivia, Ms. Taylor is endearing in her portrayal of genuine, if perhaps melodramatic experiences of grief and love. Ms. Afful and Ms. Taylor share the second to last bow at the end of the play. This moment stuck out, as each could have taken a bow with her respective male suitor, but this choice allowed the audience the chance to celebrate two dynamic and interesting Shakespearean female characters, and the actors who brought them to life.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, this reviewer came to the theatre excited to see the dynamics between three accomplished Stratford Festival veterans, Geraint Wyn Davies, Tom Rooney, and Brent Carver. It turns out that another veteran of the Festival; Lucy Peacock is an equally fun part of the equation as Maria, a gentlewoman to Olivia, and potential love interest to Wyn Davies' Sir Toby Belch (Olivia's ill-mannered, oft drunk uncle), as is Gordon S. Miller as Fabian, a member of Olivia's household who joins in on a prank against Malvolio (played by Rod Beattie).

Rooney plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a friend of Toby Belch and an all-around idiot who thinks himself an intellectual and a charmer. My viewing partner likened Belch and Sir Andrew to an Elizabethan Wayne and Garth (Sir Andrew's hair certainly helps this visual). I found this comparison to be delightful. Wyn Davies and Rooney are hilarious together, and when Carver's Feste joins them in singing a round, the musical talents of all three men combine with their comedic talents, allowing for a truly hysterical moment. In short, this was exactly what this reviewer came to the theatre hoping for!

Front and centre in this play, are the hilarious cases of mistaken identity, and the light-hearted yet at times truly sentimental takes on love. The actors do a great job in bringing these themes to life, but the technical aspects of this production must also be acknowledged. The land of Illyria designed by John Pennoyer, contains gold and silver metallic trees as well as gates and windows made up of elaborate metallic designs. There is a combination of order and beauty to this design that is quite poetic. The musical compositions and sound design by Reza Jacobs (for the songs performed mostly by Mr. Carver) are beautifully eerie, as is the lighting by Louise Guinand. The use of 'singing bowls' for chime sounds and for background music throughout the play is a nice touch, and the way the bowls are lit up when in use is just one example of the skills of the Artistic team coming together for this production. In her director's notes, Ms. Henry comments that the collaboration between all involved is what works best about this production. This reviewer agrees whole-heartedly.

TWELFTH NIGHT runs in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 21st.

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

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