American Players Theatre’s "Twelfth Night" sparkles
Normally Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck, but American Players Theatre’s production, directed by John Langs, starts with a variety show. In front of an impromptu curtain, a set of fraternal twins sings, dances and merrily exchanges costumes onboard a ship, showing that only a skirt or breeches betray their true sex. But as the siblings kick up their heels and encourage the audience of sailors to join in their song, thunder crashes. The ship pitches wildly in a storm, and in a beautiful, poignant moment choreographed by Jessica Bess Lanius, the twins grasp hands, only to be separated by the waves.
This inspired opening sets the tone for a production that exceeds expectations in scene after scene. With extensive original music by Josh Schmidt and a notable ensemble that dives deeply into physical comedy, challenging wordplay, the pain of unrequited love, the sweetness of revenge, and the giddiness of new discoveries, this classic Shakespearean comedy is filled with moments of originality and illumination.
Kelsey Brennan is Viola, the female twin who is washed ashore in Illyria and dons men’s clothes to pass herself off as a eunuch, serving in the court of Count Orsino while she gets her bearings. After her “pants” role last season in The Recruiting Officer, Brennan easily assumes the guise of Cesario, only betraying her identity in plaintive soliloquies to the audience about her growing affection for her master, the lovesick Orsino, played with emotional complexity by Gavin Lawrence.
Orsino, who enters moping his way down a long staircase with the familiar “If music be the food of love, play on ...” wallows in his obsession with Olivia (Aila Peck), an unattainable woman who spurns his every advance. In his despair, he is increasingly intrigued by the “boy” he has recently taken into his service. During an emotional duet, Cesario and Orsino connect palpably, and then unexpectedly, in a sudden kiss. It is the high point of a play about the pursuit of true love.
But the lovers are frequently upstaged by the fools: LaShawn Banks, as an entertaining and wise clown, Feste; Triney Sandoval, as the aptly named drunkard and mischief maker Sir Toby Belch, and Ted Deasy, as the awkward, capering fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who finances much of Belch’s merry-making. Between their drunken singing and dancing, their general irreverence and practical joking, this trio has a gift for mocking their betters and celebrating at the smallest provocation. Sandoval, who is new to APT this year, stands out as a particularly great find with his gift for revealing moments of tenderness between bouts of bluster.
With icy stares and sullen disapproval, David Daniel paints Olivia’s steward Malvolio as a puritanical killjoy who tries to run his mistress’s estate with an iron hand. In a return to traditional interpretation, this Malvolio is so severe that when Belch teams up with his love Maria (a gentle but sly Colleen Madden) to trick the humorless tyrant, the folly feels deserved. Through complicated choreography involving Grecian pillars and enormous potted ferns, setting the trap for Malvolio has seldom been so amusing. And when he preens for his supposed love in a suit that is sunny yellow from head to toe, he looks like both an ass and an enormous squash. (Beautiful costume design by Janny Mannis.)
This is another production jam packed with music that heightens key scenes. Viola and Sebastian sing a silly music hall number at the top of the show. Belch, Feste and Aguecheek sing rowdy drinking songs. Feste delivers soothing airs to a grieving Orsino and, as mentioned above, Cesario and Orsino share a gorgeous, transformative duet. And to make sure the actors’ singing voices carry to each of the 1,100 seats, they are mic’d for those numbers, which is frankly jarring. It’s good to hear the cast clearly as they croom, but the sound isn’t synched perfectly, so there’s a small, distracting echo. Hopefully that can be mitigated over the rest of the summer.
Twelfth Night is running in rotating repertory in American Players’ The Hill Theatre through Oct. 6.