The Shakespeare Festival Views “Twelfth Night” Through a 1920s Lens

The Bard meets Broadway in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night.

The show proves to be an inventive amusement buoyed by some fine comic performances and an infectious musical score by Greg Mackender. It also threatens to wear out its welcome before the final curtain.

This is the second time the festival has produced this play, considered to be among Shakespeare’s best comedies. The main plot hinges on romantic longing complicated by a cross-dressing protagonist, while a laborious subplot employs insistent buffoonery as hard-drinking troublemakers plot to give a high-handed steward his comeuppance.

The cast is filled with festival veterans and an impressive newcomer, Matthew J. Williamson, who with his debonair manner and smooth delivery grabs our attention as the love-struck Duke Orsino.

The production also showcases Vanessa Severo, one of the city’s most skilled comic actresses, as Olivia, a woman who mourns for her dead brother and who falls head-over-heels in love with a young woman pretending to be a man. Severo gives the role a contemporary edge with shrewdly chosen anachronistic mannerisms.

Bruce Roach offers one of the finest comic performances in the history of the festival as the ill-used Malvolio, Olivia’s stuffed-shirt steward. Phil Fiorini, who has in effect become the festival’s resident clown, scores with a memorable turn as Feste, an antic observer and participant — and an interesting counterpoint to Fiorini’s memorable performance as the Fool in the festival’s 2015 production of “King Lear.”

So while there is plenty to praise in this production, much of the attempted humor is broad enough to bring to mind the Three Stooges. We’ve seen this before when the festival takes on one of the Bard’s comedies. Actors are encouraged to underscore the language with big physical gestures and outright mugging meant, presumably, to reach viewers farthest from the stage in Southmoreland Park.

Because the script assigns several songs to Feste, director Sidonie Garrett has reinvented the show as a vintage slap-happy Broadway musical comedy. It’s not a bad choice. Mackender’s music taps into a variety of jazz and Tin Pan Alley influences; the score is performed live by Mackender on vibes and clarinet with Bram Wijnants at the piano perched high above the action. And costume designer Mary Traylor places the action in the 1920s with a succession of eye-popping outfits.

The plot hinges on twin siblings, Viola (an appealing Bree Elrod) and Sebastian (Ben Auxier), each of whom believes the other has drowned after a shipwreck on the coast of Illyria. Viola costumes herself as a man, adopts the name of Cesario and offers her services to the Duke, who pines for the unapproachable Olivia. He dispatches “Cesario” with messages to Olivia, who soon becomes smitten with the charming “boy.”

Meanwhile, Maria (Cinnamon Schultz), Olivia’s servant,  conspires with Sir Toby Belch (the blustering Scott Cordes), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a clownish but physically precise Jaques Roy) and Fabian (an entertaining Andy Perkins) to humiliate Malvolio with a forged letter.

The plot is preposterous, even for a 400-year-old comedy, which Shakespeare acknowledges in one of Fabian’s lines: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

In the smaller roles, nice work is turned in by Mark Robbins, who doubles as a ship captain and a priest; Matthew Rapport as Sebastian’s friend Antonio; Josh LeBrun as Valentine, Orsino’s steward, and Frank Oakley Jr. as Curio, another member of the Orsino entourage.

All theater requires a suspension of disbelief, which this show pushes to the limit. When Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, costumed identically, are believed to be the same person by various characters until they finally appear together in the final sequence, we face the reality that the delicate Elrod and the physically larger Auxier could not possibly be mistaken for twins.

Ah, well. I believe that’s what they call the Magic of Theater.

Twelfth Night runs through July 3 at Southmoreland Park, between Oak and Warwick just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Call 816-531-7728 or go to www.kcshakes.org. The festival is free but accepts donations.

CategoriesTheater Reviews
Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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