Unrequited love, cross-dressing, mistaken identities, "dead" relatives – sounds like Shakespeare. Corduroy bell bottoms on a beach, jam bands, Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett – well, that sounds like Houston Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night.
One of the Bard's most popular rom-coms and best comedies, Twelfth Night is a musing on deception and miscommunication, the ephemera of love and life, but told as only Shakespeare can – starting with two dead brothers.
In Illyria, an emo-ish Duke Orsino pines for Olivia, who’s deep in mourning for her brother and declares she will continue to mourn him for seven years. Viola, meanwhile, finds herself shipwrecked in Illyria and, thinking her own twin brother Sebastian dead, decides to disguise herself as a boy, for protection, and seek employment with the Duke.
The Duke is quite taken with his new page "Cesario,” and sends him to woo Olivia on Orsino's behalf. The problem? Viola's fallen in love with Orsino, and Olivia quickly falls in love with Cesario. This three-person quadrangle is complicated further by Sir Andrew Aguecheeck's own interest in Olivia, and Olivia's drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch. The two, together with Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria, trick Olivia's steward Malvolio into believing Olivia's in love with him. Oh, and Sebastian is alive, and his arrival in Illyria soon leads to Parent Trap or Sister, Sister-like misunderstandings.
Director Jack Young's vision for HSF’s Twelfth Night resists classification and baffles at times. There’s a seaside set. Viola's Cesario costume looks like it was swiped from the Partridge Family wardrobe department, but Malvolio looks like John Lennon, circa-Hard Day's Night, and later dons some mod sunglasses and platforms. Orsino’s jam band contains Blues Brother-esque members. Olivia could be from a production set in Elizabethan times, and it is all the more jarring when Feste begins singing about "boys from North Dakota" and the "cowboys down in Texas."
That said, the liberal use of mostly country music from the late '80s and early '90s, as jarring as it feels at moments, coupled with the stellar musical talents of the cast — including Camron Alexander, Heidi Hinkel, Mike Lee, Abraham Ntonya, Dylan Paul and Patrick Poole — is a recipe for success. The majority of the evening's best moments involved a song, the audience breaking into well-deserved applause. The previously mentioned "North Dakota," "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" and "I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You" by Lyle Lovett; Tom Waits's "Jayne's Blue Wish"; and an intermission jam session that included the Tammy Wynette classic "Stand By Your Man" all hit the right notes musically, with most played by Mike Lee’s Feste, both fool and troubadour.
Young's production doesn't really find its footing until the last scene before intermission, one of the funniest in the entire show. Jake Offen’s Sir Toby, Carlton Warnberg’s Sir Andrew and Ntonya’s Fabian repeatedly appear, shush and restrain each other while spying on Poole's Malvolio as he reads the forged letter professing Olivia's interest in him. These men are responsible for much of the show's silliness, each committed completely to the absurdity of their behavior, especially Warnberg and Poole.
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Warnberg's Sir Andrew is goofy and foppish, in a very '70s turtleneck-blazer combo, with a memorable laugh and good delivery. The evolution (and devolution) of Poole's uptight and repressed Malvolio is a treat, and his much-anticipated appearance in yellow stockings and cross-garters doesn't disappoint, nor does his seemingly Brad Majors-inspired "floorshow" flirting with Olivia.
Tracie Thomason as Viola and Cesario is the most successful at finding the natural lyricism of Shakespeare's work in the show's first half, but her co-stars catch up with her by the second. The lackluster performances that kicked off the production give way to a strong finish, but it ultimately doesn’t mask the show’s unevenness, which unfortunately was also marred by countless sound problems, making for a disappointing night at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
But it’s the 2017 Houston Shakespeare Festival, and there’s always Richard III.
Twelfth Night continues on July 30 and August 1, 3 and 5 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park. For information, call 281-373-3386 or visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.