Philly Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ enchants

POSTED: March 30, 2012

Shakespeare’s plays contain lyrics or references to more than 100 songs. Today, the Bard no doubt would have written Twelfth Night as a musical.

That’s the sense given by Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s enchanting production. From its first line – “If music be the food of love, play on” – Fabian Obispo’s original music accentuates the melancholic theme in a duke’s rejoinder to a fool’s question: “Would you rather have a love song or a song of good life?” “A love song. I care not for good life.”

Duke Orsino (Jered McLenigan) pines for Countess Olivia (Caroline Crocker), who forswears love until she meets Viola (Victoria Rose Bonito), disguised as a man in the Duke’s employ. Uppity servant Malvolio (Rob Kahn) fancies himself a suitable suitor for Olivia, as does a foppish knight, Aguecheek (Johnny Smith); each invents reasons why he loves and she does not.

Traditional productions highlight the wit of the dark comedic subplot; director Carmen Khan focuses on the gloomy love story, and with good reason. Rob Kahn’s Malvolio supplies more humor in attire and facial expressions than the three drunkards revenging themselves upon him, and the mistaken-identity devices hinge twins separated in this casting by six inches of height.

But I can forgive much in a production that delights with four strong performances in sumptuous visual and aural landscape. The cast enters to Obispo’s orchestrations of a violent thunderstorm. Maria Shaplin’s lighting draws on a pastel palette, fashioning pink-orange sunsets and powder-blue afternoons. Costumer Vickie Esposito deploys 1930s-era white linen suits and cream-colored dresses, saddle buck shoes and high heels. Lisi Stoessel’s elegant hardwood floor ends in a backstage railing that prevents a plunge into the tempest. Combined, these elements create a paradise, hemmed in by billowing curtains, where it rains every day and melancholy is only relieved by rainbow parasols.

Bonito’s speech flows through deep wells of emotion and nuance carried by a mastery of rhythm that tempers McLenigan’s teenager tantrums and Crocker’s outbursts. As the only one who gets what she actually wants, her incandescent, hopeful performance fittingly interprets Shakespeare’s subtitle, “What you will,” as a resigned salute to fate’s prerogative to do whatever it wants in matters of love. And at Philadelphia Shakespeare, it’s all served with as much spectacle as a musical.