Do you know a teenager who'd rather watch a Matlock marathon than a Shakespearean play? An adult who'd prefer an appointment with Dr. Jellyfinger, the clumsy proctologist? Well, you'd best hijack those folks and sit them down in front of Twelfth Night, now being presented by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This exceptional production offers all the expected diversions of Will's fine comedy -- gender-shifting, drunken pranks, and mistaken identities -- along with the added inducements of splendid performances, an outdoor venue, and free admission. Should you go? Uh, hello?
Twelfth Night is produced often; its comically complex story has broad appeal. A twin brother and sister, Viola and Sebastian, are separated after a shipwreck. Viola washes up in Illyria and disguises herself as an attractive young man named Cesario to avoid getting hit on by the kingdom's dirty old men (I know, I know, but that's what she thought). Soon, "he" hooks up as an aide to Duke Orsino (played with prancing lustiness by Jesse James Kamps) and is dispatched to court the lovely Countess Olivia on the Duke's behalf, since Olivia, bummed by her brother's death, has pledged herself to celibacy. While Olivia is unexpectedly falling in love with messenger boy-girl Cesario, the other twin, Sebastian, is cruising the seas with his rescuer, the pirate Antonia (energetic Jennifer Clifford); eventually they also dock in Illyria.
At the same time, there are other plots afoot. Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's continually soused uncle, prowls the town at all hours with his buddy, the erratic knight-errant Sir Andrew, a dim bulb who hopes to woo Toby's beauteous niece. But Olivia is always under the watchful eye of the priggish and pompous Malvolio, who despises Belch's carousing, so Toby and Andrew plot with Maria, Olivia's maid, to plant a love letter supposedly from Olivia to Malvolio. They hope this maudlin missive will turn the stuffy Malvolio into a simpering idiot. Eventually, everyone gathers in the same place, and all the true identities are sorted out. Orsino decides it wouldn't be bad to get it on with his male aide Cesario, especially since he turned out to be a woman. And Olivia is pleased that her love for Cesario can be easily transferred to the look-alike brother, Sebastian. The only loser is Malvolio, who stomps off, swearing revenge upon all.
Director Seth Gordon excels in capturing the zest of this wonderful script while bringing out a number of memorable performances from his extremely capable cast. As Malvolio, Robert Hawkes demonstrates a total command of Shakespeare's language and comic intent, as he morphs from a squinty tightass to a dreamily drooling fool for love. The scene when he swoons over the letter from Olivia is priceless. More laughter is provided by Aaron B. Coleman, who turns Sir Andrew into a gawky and totally clueless dolt who misunderstands the simplest declarative sentences. His mutually reluctant fistfight with Cesario, orchestrated like a puppet show by Toby and his fellow drunkard, Fabian, is a hysterical fisticuffs ballet of half-man vs. half-wit. Diminutive Allen Branstein gives the tippling Toby Belch a Mickey Rooney-style swagger and stagger, but is occasionally defeated by a voice that's a bit thin for the role.
It's easy to believe that Olivia is the object of everyone's affection, since Bernadette Clemens is luminous even in her mourning clothes and wonderfully affecting when she falls like a ton of Corinthian columns for Cesario. In the ticklish role of gender-bent Cesario/Viola, Kat McIntosh is likable as well as completely believable, striking just the right balance between inherent femininity and manufactured boyishness. Her many double-takes are subtly handled and, as a result, quite funny. In the much smaller role of Sebastian, Scott Esposito is suitably handsome and charming. Along the way, songs and jests are delivered with confident panache by Michael Roache as the Fool.
Original music composed by Linda Eisenstein helps set the mood of various scenes, using a light electronic sound suggestive of a harpsichord. But even without an eye-grabbing set, lots of props, and high-concept costumes (it's performed in muted modern dress), this Twelfth Night never fails to captivate -- thanks to a tight two-hour pace and a slick, well-meshed troupe of performers. There is simply no better way to enjoy a soft summer evening in Cleveland than with the Bard's gathering of lovers and louts. A deep bow to the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival and artistic director Lawrence Nehring for providing no-cost access to such delightful fare.
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