“Theatre Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre”
By Kelly Mintzer
April 18, 2016
(Photos by Kendall Whitehouse)
Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare unwittingly set the bones of Gary Marshall’s career, by establishing the standards every modern romantic comedy would strive to attain. Whether that qualifies as blessing or curse is largely contingent on any personal biases towards elaborately contrived scenarios, broad characterization, and convenient if improbable resolutions. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of Twelfth Night manages to embrace these well-established fundamentals and craft them into an entirely charming evening, despite the fantastically convoluted love story at play.
“. . .Every aspect of the production is lovely. . .”
Twelfth Night is, at it’s core, a story of boy loves girl, but girl loves other boy who is actually also a girl, who loves the original boy and incidentally has a brother who looks almost exactly like her, who falls in love with the original girl who then loves him in return. Recognizing that this is not the most readily identifiable dilemma, the program provides a flow-chart to explain who loves who and when, establishing firmly at it’s center Lady Olivia, played with sunny aristocracy by Elise Hudson. Olivia is mourning a deceased brother and regularly rebuffing the advances of Orsino (Deaon Griffin-Pressley; delightfully melodramatic). Orsino dispatches Cesario (Julia Jensen Ray) to do a little vicarious wooing on his account. Cesario proves to be too effective at the pursuit and Olivia falls in love with him, which is doubly inconvenient as Cesario is, in fact, Viola in disguise. Viola, we learn, survived a shipwreck that she believes her twin brother, Sebastian, perished in. She has also fallen in love with Orsino.
Concurrent to this, Olivia’s perpetually intoxicated cousin, Toby (William LeDent) is encouraging the wealthy Sir Andrew (John Zak) to pursue Olivia, which primarily leads to a great deal of drunken carousing. Toby and Olivia’s maid, Maria (Jenna Kuerzi, abundantly sassy) are in a semi combative, affectionate romance, and conspire together, along with Sir Andrew, Fabian (Michael Gamache), and Feste (Adam Kampouris), the fool, to hoodwink and humiliate Malvolio (Rob Kahn), Olivia’s repressed and smitten butler (for those keeping score, Olivia is up to three besotted suitors).
Antonio the sea captain (Eric Van Wie) and Sebastian (Josh Kachnycz) come ashore and are immediately engulfed in this swirling morass of intent and deception, as people continually confuse Sebastian for Viola and vice versa.
Twelfth Night is a Gordian knot of plot, and dwelling on any individual thread too long would lead to a serious consideration of how fundamentally absurd every given aspect this confluence of events and personalities is. Director Carmen Khan wisely leans into the absurdity, keeping the pace rapid fire and a little madcap. There is an almost slapstick quality to the production that wisely takes advantage of a cast that is wonderfully gifted with physical comedy. Adam Kampouris as Feste does things that should not actually be physically possible, capering, tumbling and generally moving as if his bones are made of Twizzlers. In a particularly striking moment, he assumes a series of cartoonish poses while scaling Josh Kachnycz-who credibly and valiantly maintains straight man status. Rob Kahn’s rigid posture and rictus grin (to say nothing of his sock garters) turn Malvolio into a fussy, neurotic scene stealer. John Zak gives Sir Andrew a twitchy, nervous physicality that elevates him from hapless dupe to worthy (if oblivious) comic equal. Julia Jensen Ray’s macro expressions are an entire farce unto themselves; by presenting Viola as a bastion of sanity, she reacts for the audience, and works wonders with an incredulous side-eye.
The full cast does a remarkable job with the dialogue; iambic pentameter delivered poorly can be difficult to follow and alienating. Here it is spoken beautifully and quite naturally, in a way that allows each line to breathe and each joke to land, without lingering too long.
Every aspect of the production is lovely; the minimalist set design relies on warm colors and open spaces to evoke a romantic and light atmosphere. The costumes-heavy on loose pale linens and cerulean blues- become an essential component, as they provide the most cogent argument as to why two people who bear virtually no resemblance would continue to be mistaken for each other.
Though there are intimations of deeper considerations on gender roles and aristocratic frivolity, Twelfth Night is fundamentally a trifle; light and breezy and easy to digest. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre crafts that into a worthy and absolutely delightful thing to be.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Twelfth Night runs through May 22, 2016 and is presented by The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call 215-496-8001.