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Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Allyn Burrows. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.

"What is power? Do or not do?"

When Shakespeare asks a question it is best to know the answer, really know it, before you answer. In Shakespeare and Company's new production of the sprightly comedy, "Twelfth Night," there are many questions to be asked but the answers come sparingly. For one: Why is the play set in a dance hall on the boardwalk, by the sea? I haven't found anyone. . . yet . . . who can supply me with an answer I can believe.

 Steven Barkhimer as Sir Toby Belch, Nigel Gore as Sir Andrew Aguecheek,

Gregory Boover as Feste;

Photo: Daniel Rader

Like all Shakespeare plays the locales shift and change scene to scene, but the dancehall look is so concrete that whether we are looking at Orsino's rooms or Olivia's home, the setting is red leather banquets, palm tree surrounded, and cocktail table decored. It does provide a confusion. Although seen at the first public performance (July 2) it is highly unlikely that this scenic element of the play has been much altered. Clothed in the trappings of America, ca. 1959, that clothier element of the production also doesn't offer much to the weight of the piece. A third aspect, however, has quite a positive impact and that is the music Gregory Boover (composed, I think, by Arshan Gailus) has provided.  They have set Shakespeare's lyrics to lilting, rocking, rollocking country-inflected tunes that often transport the play into the lyrical world where you want to tap your feet, clap your hands and just get into the joy of it all. For a 1600s comedy that's not bad, not bad at all. Susan Dibble's opening and closing dances keep the show grounded in its olde English origin, but are fun to watch as she alters the combinations of pairings and partners.

The trio of fools in this production are less foolish than in many other versions I have seen, but they are more genuine and adorable than in most. Boover is a delight singing, acting or just fooling around upstage. Nigel Gore is wonderful as the overly sensitive Sir Andrew who plights his troth, plots his wroth and plays the spoons while Steven Barkhimer's barely reasonable Sir Toby Belch is obsequious and overbearing at the same time when it comes to his niece, the lovely Olivia. Together and apart, and also in cahoots with Maria, the lady-in-waiting mischief-maker played with utter delight by Bella Martin, the comics, or clowns, are the highlight of the production, well worth the time and the price of the ticket.

Miles Anderson as Malvolio and Cloteal L. Horne as Olivia; Photo: Daniel Rader

Equally amusing was Miles Anderson as the butler, Malvolio. He is a servant entranced by the graces of his mistress, Olivia, who basically treats all men with a completely sensible disdain. She is more dependent on her butler, however, and he silently adores her and lives to serve her. When he is tricked into believing that she has genuine feelings for him he moves from a lightly comic role into a highly comic position, dressing oddly, speaking at will and generally just making a fool of himself for her. Anderson is so genuine in his changes that he becomes a bigger idiot than is often the case for this character who usually just seems foolish. In the current presentation he is more than just foolish, he is the embodiment of idiocy. It's a lovely look at a classic role.

Olivia is played by Cloteal L. Horne. This is the much adored lady who cannot abide the attention of men for she is in deep mourning over the double loss of her father and her brother. She suffers revelations when she falls in love with the "hero" of the play, a young man named Cesario who is in reality the shipwrecked maiden in distress Viola. Even wonderful Duke Orsino has to suffer for her love. And that's the plighted plot of the play.

Martin Jason Asprey as the Sea Captain; Ella Loudon as Viola; Photo: Daniel Rader

Ella Loudon plays the orphaned, drowned and marooned maiden who is found by the sea captain whose ship she traveled on before an accident sunk it along with her twin brother, Sebastian.  Donning his clothes which miraculously survived, she becomes the boy Cesario from scene two onward. (S)He finds employment with Duke Orsino who uses the lad's appeal as a go-between with Olivia never thinking that Cesario could possibly appeal to a sophisticated woman. Once again, there's the plight in the plot.

Orsino is played by the romantic actor Bryce Michael Wood. Wood has an understated method of showing misery at the loss of his lady's love. And when the presumed lost Sebastian shows up wearing the exact same outfit as his disguised sister Viola, the plot thickens like pea soup left standing. Shakespeare's comedies of "error" play out as they must and in the case of this one, in this edition, some of those errors are corrected by misplacing a few explanatory lines and worse, by a few needed confusions of interest that don't play on, or play out as they should. 

Bryce Michael Wood as Orsino; Gregory Boover as Feste, Ella Loudon as Cesario; Photo: Daniel Rader

The physical show has a beauty to it, the costumes by Govane Lohbauer being the finest design element on the stage. The set, already discussed here, by Christina Tedesco is lovely but sort of pointless. Deb Sullivan's lighting design is terrific if often a bit dark for a comedy, but the show has its dark, tragically comic moments such as the trial of Malvolio which is the only set design moment that didn't work at all for me or any of my thirty adult students (the reason I saw the show earlier than anticipated). Missed moments for me included the transition of interest for Orsino from Olivia to Viola (and is that a shift of the letters game, or what?) leaving the ending a bit hard to grasp.  There is so much to love in this production and so much to question, but as I noted up top, its better to have an answer before you ask too much.

We have to thank Artistic Director Allyn Burrows for all of this, the production, the questions and the made-up answers, the choices the actors have made and the ultimate levels of individual responses to one of The Bard's brilliant comedies.

+  07/11/19  +

Twelfth Night plays on the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through August 4. For information and tickets go to www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.