Where: Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Dec. 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Writers Theatre Artistic Director Michael Halberstam takes a cue for his staging of “Twelfth Night, or What you Will” directly from the holiday for which Shakespeare’s comedy is named. As an article in the program explains, the medieval and Tudor celebration at the end of the Christmas season, on the night before Epiphany, was a time when everything was turned upside down, when “men would dress as women, and people would traditionally play practical jokes on one another all while consuming much food and drink.”
From the moment the play starts on scenic designer William Boles’ striking set featuring the sky above and the sea seen though graceful archways, we know that this Illyria is topsy-turvy. Instead of addressing his opening line “If music be the food of love, play on…” to his musicians, Duke Orsino (Matthew C. Yee) hurls it at the storm raging all around him, thanks to lighting designer John Culbert and sound designer Josh Schmidt, who also composed the music used to good effect throughout the evening.
And Orsino is dressed in flamboyant pants and a long open coat, one of Mara Blumenfeld’s many outrageous costumes that suggest the 17th century in a parallel universe. They peak, not surprisingly, with Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s (Scott Parkinson at his peak) magnificently mismatched outfits (note the shoes) and range from several characters’ austere black to Olivia’s (Andrea San Miguel) gorgeous embroidered gown when she finally gives up her mourning attire.
At the outset, Olivia is grieving for her dead brother, and like virtually everyone in this production, she goes to extremes. Practically as soon as she sees Viola disguised as Cesario (Jennifer Latimore) and sent by Orsino to woo her in his name, she falls head-over-heels and is excessively effusive in her love. Orsino is so angered by her rejections that he insults all women. At the same time, he’s confused by his attraction to Cesario who, actually being Viola, knows right away that she wants him for her own, even as she tries to deflect the attentions of Olivia.
The pinnacle of extremism is Olivia’s puritanical steward Malvolio (picture perfect Sean Fortunato). In a prank to end all pranks, he’s misled by a letter into believing that his mistress loves him and goes so far over the top in thinking he can surpass his station that she thinks he’s gone mad. The pranksters are Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Kevin Gudahl), the maid Maria (Karen Janes Woditsch), Aguecheek, and Fabian (Mary Williamson), and the revenge that they take on Malvolio for his harsh criticism of them is both merry and mean.
In fact, this subplot, which can become tedious and annoying, is a highlight of the show in the hands of Halberstam and these terrific actors. They’re not only hilarious, they make the characters completely human. Gudahl’s Sir Toby has a depth that belies his drunkenness, Woditsch is letter perfect as his lady friend Maria, and Parkinson’s Sir Andrew is so stupid, sad, and sort of sweet that you actually care about him. Even misused Malvolio elicits a little sympathy, despite his self-righteousness and vow to be revenged on the rest of them.
The key may be that the main players are as foolish as those typically treated as comic relief. Yee’s Orsino is so full of himself that it’s hard to understand why Viola falls for him, while San Miguel’s petite Olivia comes across as a young girl trying to play grownup. Latimore is intelligent and appealing as Viola, but Luce Metrius doesn’t make much of an impression as her lost-and-found brother Sebastian who seems very slow at figuring things out.
The only one who isn’t a fool, really, is the actual Fool, Feste. William Brown has just the right amount of gravitas—and a melancholy singing voice—for the role as he moves back and forth between Orsino and Olivia’s court speaking truth whether people want to hear it or not.
Comedy and cruelty go hand-in-hand in Shakespeare, and at the same time that Writers Theatre’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” is one of the funniest I’ve seen, the joy and silliness have undercurrents as turbulent as the storm that sets off the action..