What a Night
The night was unseasonably cool, the audience was festive and the show, well...it was Twelfth Night, one of William Shakespeare's most enchanting. The jovial, sexy, wonderfully funny cast guided the audience through plot twists and difficult language toward a charmed ending. Now in its 35th year, the Houston Shakespeare Festival has clearly arrived as the go-to group in Houston for all things Bard.
The gender-bending story of mistaken identity and swoony love for all the wrong people opens with a storm-tossed girl climbing out of the ocean. Her name is Viola (Jennifer Cherry), and she has no idea where she's landed after being lost at sea. She frets over the whereabouts of her twin brother, Sebastian (John Austin Ellis) — he's lost too. But she must take care of herself until she can find him, so, in the can-do spirit that makes this heroine so appealing, she decides to make a home for herself in the foreign land of Illyria, which turns out to be a most charmed landscape. Smart as a whip, Viola promptly chops off her blond locks and gets herself dressed up as a boy so she can attend the ruler of the town, Duke Orsino (Ilich Guardiola).
Once in his midst, she finds all sorts of romantic drama. The handsome Duke is infatuated with the great beauty Olivia (Celeste Roberts), but she won't have him. Not only is she still pining over the death of her brother, she just doesn't much care for the Duke. Still, the stubborn man won't give up, and he sends his new servant to help him win Olivia's heart. Instead, Olivia ends up falling for the disguised Viola. Meanwhile, Viola finds herself utterly smitten with her new boss the Duke. So, in the wondrous mixed-up comedy of Shakespeare, Olivia's in love with a girl disguised as a boy, and Viola, who's disguised as a boy, is hopelessly in love with the Duke. As one of the characters in the play says, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." Unless, that is, Shakespeare's doing the writing.
The energetic direction from Sidney Berger and his potent cast make the strange tale fabulous and deliciously funny. Cherry's Viola carries the weight of the story on her slender but powerful shoulders. There is a largess to her performance that takes control of both the big open space at Miller Outdoor Theatre and the almost slapstick-y fun of Shakespeare. In one scene, when the Duke is listening to music while pining for Olivia, Cherry's Viola (disguised as Cesario) all but swoons as the Duke begins to gaze into her eyes, at first longing for Olivia, then, umm, longing for Cesario? The moment is hilarious, and much fun is made of the awkwardness both the Duke and Viola feel after the song stops.
Funny too are the moments when Olivia chases Viola/Cesario around Viola's castle. Poor Viola — she adores the man Olivia despises and must keep Olivia from planting a big wet one on her.
The supporting characters are also a dream. Kate Revnell-Smith is a naughty wench of a Maria, Olivia's handmaid who ruins another one of Olivia's advisers, Malvolio, played to the hilt by Paul Hope (Alley fans will instantly recognize Hope). Malvolio is a staunch, unbending puritan who thinks he's better than all the other hangers-on at Olivia's castle. When drunks Sir Toby Belch (Rutherford Cravens) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Guy Roberts) plot with Maria to get back at Malvolio for being such a snot, the result is one of the funniest scenes of the summer. Malvolio struts about, a peacock in yellow stockings with cross garters, trying to win Olivia's heart by smiling, an act he's so unaccustomed to it actually hurts his face.
One of the best things about this production is the relaxed confidence of David Wald's lovely songs, which he plays upon a guitar as Feste, Olivia's Fool. Most of all, nothing here feels overwrought or pushed, which is especially remarkable, given that this is Shakespeare, the most intimidating playwright in the Western canon. But after 35 years, one might expect a company to feel at home in the fantastically sublime, wonderfully bawdy world of Shakespeare.
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