It was a natural for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to open the summer season in the outdoor theater with Shakespeare's rollicking "Twelfth Night." After all, "Twelfth Night" was the first production of Angus Bowmer's "Oregon Shakespearean Festival" 75 years ago, in 1935. It was such a crowd-pleaser that Bowmer presented it again in 1936, 1937 and 1938.
This year's "Twelfth Night" is fast-paced, bright and funny. It certainly turns Bowmer's "safe" play choice on its ear — this is far from a "safe" production of the old chestnut. And that is precisely what makes it so enjoyable.
Shakespeare's full title is "Twelfth Night: or What You Will" and it was written as a Christmas revel some time around 1600. Shakespeare based it on broad Italian comedy, with the all the classical components of farce — mistaken identity, unrequited love, frantic action and slapstick humor. But "Twelfth Night" goes beyond the parameters of classical "commedia dell'arte." Along with the mix-up of class and manners, "Twelfth Night" has an edgy sexual ambiguity. (And, considering that in Shakespeare's time, female roles were played by young men, the audience would have experienced an even quirkier dimension.)
As "Twelfth Night" opens, a lovely young noblewoman, Viola (Brooke Parks), survives a shipwreck and is cast ashore on the island of Illyria. Believing that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned and concerned that an unprotected woman is too vulnerable, she dresses in her brother's salvaged clothes and pretends to be a young man, "Cesario." She secures a place as a page at Duke Orsino's court and finds herself falling in love with him.
Orsino (Kenajuan Bentley) is passionately in love with the Countess Olivia (Miriam A. Laube). She refuses his advances, claiming that she is mourning her dead brother. Orsino enlists the aid of the appealing "Cesario" to plead his case and, to Viola's dismay, Olivia falls in love with her, seeing Viola as an adorable teen age boy. Meanwhile, Orsino finds himself increasingly happier in the company of his young page than pining for Olivia.
The romantic pairings are played out against the antic subplot of Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Michael J. Hume), the maid Maria (Robin Goodrin Nordli), the cook Fabian (Tony DeBruno) and a foolish provincial knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Rex Young). The four conspire to revenge themselves on Olivia's pompous and puritanical steward, Malvolio (Christopher Liam Moore), playing off his fantasies and secret love for Olivia.
Shakespeare made Olivia's household fool, Feste (Michael Elich), the character that brings all these elements together. He is the bridge between these two worlds, wise and foolish, subtle and broad, an ironic commentator and keen observer. He confronts the rest of the characters with a reality they often refuse to see.
Director Darko Tresnjak placed this production in the late 18th century on a set that is a verdant lawn and garden, giving it the look of the age's formal pastoral tableaux. His sound track, if you will, is Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," with the recurrent theme of the aria "Voi che sapete."
You don't have to know the plot of the "The Marriage of Figaro" — Mozart's music works just dandy as a counterpoint to the action — but if you are familiar with the cross-dressing, mistaken identities and class warfare of Mozart's delightful opera, there is a sly, mischievous resonance. In "Figaro", "voi che sapete" is sung by a young man, Cherubino, and the translation is roughly "You, ladies, who know what love is, see how tortured I am and whether I am really in love." Not a bad commentary on the plight of Viola, Olivia and even Maria.
Of course, all ends well when Viola's twin Sebastian (Christian Barillas) turns up, a convenient male stand-in for Olivia's passion. All, that is, except for the reviled, humiliated Malvolio and the sea captain Antonio (Jimonn Cole), who rescued Sebastian, fell in love with him and is now left out of the marriage equation. But, hey, we all can't get what we want.
Director Tresnjak keeps all of this moving brightly, utilizing broad strokes and double-takes as well as more subtly nuanced character development. He has a delightfully spunky Viola in Brooke Parks and, once again, the gorgeous Miriam A. Laube manages to be sensual and hilarious at the same time. Christopher Liam Moore is a properly ridiculous Malvolio. (I question Tresnjak's choice of placing him in an ornate bird cage, mocked by the entire household, rather than the dark cell the dialogue refers to, but it does make the point that Malvolio is universally detested.) Those ensemble stalwarts, Hume, DeBruno, Young, Elich and Nordli all come through, as do OSF newcomers, Bentley, Barillas and Cole.
That lush, green set is designed by David Zinn with lighting design by James Cox. The equally lush, colorful costumes are by Linda Cho and Josh Pearson. Composer and sound designer is Paul James Prendergast.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at email@example.com.