Cast off winter’s darkness and wallow in the light of spring with Prime Stage Theater’s Twelfth Night, a frothy, witty, and thoroughly entertaining confection through May 12.
Kudos to Prime Stage for a Twelfth Night that truly sings. Stage director Andy Kirtland has created a lovely adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1601 comedy. A vibrant intimacy connects the players and audience, supporting a wonderful production that’s superbly enjoyable for both those who know this play and for anyone experiencing Shakespeare for the first time.
Kirtland transports an ensemble of some of Shakespeare’s most lovable characters to sunny Portugal in the 1920s, a decade known for the shirking of conventions. His clean direction keeps the action and well-experienced Shakespearean actors moving with clear intention. There are some very delightful physical bits, lots of engaging direct conversation with the audience, and plenty of ridiculously comic stage-fighting–just how Shakespeare’s company would have played to the groundlings.
Here, the requisite music, mistaken identities, and “midsummer madness” of Twelfth Night fill the intimate three-quarters stage, one of the best configurations for plays in the New Hazlett Theatre Center for the Performing Arts on Pittsburgh’s Northside. A colorful and versatile set by Jonmichael Bohach features an upper balcony, curved staircase, and cozy arched passageways and a wall fountain. The avoidance of awkward scene changes and distractions pays off nicely. A lovely blue and white circular tile decoration painted on center stage by scenic painter M.K. Hughes provides focus and a handy playing area.
The audience is prompted to imagine varied locations beginning at the Duke of Illyria’s villa and the beach where heroine Viola washes up. No shipwreck, no need for special effects, just the tale of a young woman on the adventure of a lifetime as she dresses as a man and mourns a twin brother lost at sea.
Kirtland wisely plays on the strengths of this beloved comedy: witty wordplay, sung poetry, and a plot that crosses comedy with drama. The underlying drama is more connected to Shakespeare’s own family story than the comic plot, so it is most entertaining that Kirtland shakes off sad and lovelorn aspects in favor of hijinks and merriment.
The songs and music by Monica Stephenson and Gil Teixeira are most often performed with guitar by Dana Babal as Feste (traditionally the singer and clown), who cavorts in and out of parallel locations and plot lines. Babal takes charge as the witty fool and makes even some of Feste’s most convoluted humor make perfect sense.
As Duke Orsino, John Feightner may be lovesick, but he is not brooding and forlorn. Instead, Feightner plays optimism with a merrier outlook than most Dukes. His charming performance shows Feightner at his comic best.
The object of Orsino’s love, Olivia, is well-drawn by Alison Weisgall, a notable talent debuting with PST, but previously seen in Resonance Work’s On the Town last year. Weisgall’s Olivia is cunning and motivated. She makes
believable Olivia’s falling the young lad the Duke sends to woo on his behalf. Her dynamic performance helps to make even Shakespeare’s silliest plot conceits make sense.
That “lad” is Viola disguised as Cesario, the Duke’s romantic emissary. This multi-layered role is well-entrusted to Carolyn Jerz, one of the most promising young Shakespereans in town. An endearing and capable Viola, she is mostly disguised with her long locks stuffed into a boy’s cap. Jerz mirrors Feightner’s spunky optimism while she carries out Orsino’s bidding to court another woman with wit and resourcefulness.
Malcolm MacKenzie delivers a strong Sebastian, Viola’s very much alive twin and the doppelganger who soon becomes Olivia’s husband amid the merry confusion. MacKenzie’s assertiveness balances his stag sister’s fear of fighting as Sebastian eagerly jumps into the swordplay that Viola comically avoids. The fun is all the more gratifying when the twins are reunited with the realization that they could indeed be mistaken for each other!
Two characters linking Viola’s old and new worlds are played by Adam Rutledge. He first appears Curio, a servant to the Duke, then as Antonio, the sea captain who saved Sebastian’s life. Rutledge capably distinguishes the two men–the first is perturbed that a new servant is getting Orsino’s attention; and the second visibly attracted to the young man he rescued.
Twelfth Night is all the better for those who comprise the rest of Olivia’s household. This outlandish comedic-drama works here as each characterization support Shakespeare’s hijinks and deception.
Her oft-tipsy uncle is Toby (or Toby Belch, if you follow Shakespeare’s original). Uncle Toby is played by the stalwart Art DeConcillis, who frequently graces area stages. His Toby is savvy and only visibly drunk a few times, so he, too, is more artfully and empathetically drawn.
It helps that Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria, genuinely cares for Toby, so the versatile Joanna Getting applies her knack for classical text and expressive characterization to this fun and important role.
Joining the household merriment is Andrew, arriving to woo Olivia but easily sidetracked by Toby’s partying. Matt Henderson is an adorable Andrew, imbuing much in a character that can get lost in the mayhem. Henderson boosts Andrew’s appeal, so he is not so pitiful, but sweetly awkward. Fabian is another charming assistant fueling the entertaining chaos, and Raecine Singletary debuts with PST with lovely passion and focus.
Key in the plot and lessons of Twelfth Night is Malvolio, Olivia’s stiff and by-the-book major domo, played by the versatile Everett Lowe. The stern Malvolio is transformed into a misguided suitor when he finds a deceptive letter implying that Olivia is in love with him. Shining in demanding superb shifts and hilarious deadpan, Lowe savors some of Shakespeare’s cleverest lines and well-deserved audience laughter even as his character is severely bullied.
In further observations on design, lighting by Madeline Barber is well-placed and unobtrusive. While costumes by Kim Brown and Spotlight Costumes might have benefitted from some further tailoring for some of the men, the 1920s flavor and color pop against the set. Touches of traditional costume contrast with the ’20s feeling, reinforcing the juxtaposition of revelry and formality.
Overall, this is possibly the most accessible production of Twelfth Night that this writer has seen. Prime Stage’s version is truly refreshing for such a familiar script. Play on!
Twelfth Night, which runs just two hours with one intermission, is on stage at the New Hazlett through Sun., May 12. Garage parking is adjacent in addition to street spots. Tickets are on sale via Prime Stage Theater. Details there include the company’s sensory-friendly, audio description, and ASL interpreted performance
Photography Credit: John Fries
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn
Categories: Archived Reviews