If you’ve ever thought the only thing missing from most productions of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a man in a bear costume who plays the piano, the Alley Theatre has some good news for you.
But first, for anyone who’s yet to read or catch a production of the oft-produced play, Shakespeare’s comedic tale of mistaken identity begins when a woman, Viola, shipwrecked in an unknown land and believing her brother dead, decides to pass as a boy. As “Cesario,” Viola becomes a page for a duke, Orsino, and finds herself dropped in the middle of Orsino’s relentless pursuit of Olivia, a woman uninterested in love as she mourns for her recently deceased father and brother. Orsino decides to have “Cesario” act as his Cyrano de Bergerac, but problems arise when not only does Viola fall for Orsino, but Olivia falls for “Cesario.”
As this triangle takes shape, Olivia’s uncle, the drunkard Sir Toby Belch, along with his partners in crime – Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Fabian, Maria and Feste – decide to cause problems of the let's-get-him-committed type for Malvolio, a man putting a definite cramp in their freewheeling, freeloading lifestyle. Oh, and Sebastian, Viola’s presumed dead brother, is very much alive and arrives in town leading to – you guessed it – even more wacky hijinks.
The Jonathan Moscone-directed production opens in dramatic fashion, with lightning and rain falling from the sky. Here, Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind, Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal and Sound Designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen are well deserving of the delighted, impressed gasps they garnered from the audience. But don’t let it fool you; the opening scene quickly gives way to a tub rising from beneath the stage, complete with Orsino mid-bubble bath. This production offers much in the way of whimsy (see: man in bear suit playing the piano), and its playful silliness is what makes up for a lack of stylistic and thematic cohesion.
It appears Moscone took a light touch to world-building, which means that despite Akerlind’s effective lighting designs, Rosenthal’s effortless evocation of different locations on the primary set (itself encircled by a moat of sorts and set against a textured, abstract background), and Katherine Roth’s skillfully put together costumes, the universe Moscone attempts to establish remains vague, never fully taking shape.
That loose-handed approach can probably also explain the heavy, seemingly aimless first act, which starts to lose steam and drag between gags at different points. But if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that the actors at the Alley can act, and that’s what saves the day in this production of Twelfth Night.
When Kim Blanck’s Viola first appears, washed up on the shores of Illyria, she’s distraught at her circumstances and belief that her brother has perished in the ocean. Soon, however, she’s settled into life in Illyria, where she’s in turns earnest, sometimes unsure, and obviously smitten with her new employer, Chris Hutchison’s commanding and irreverent Orsino.
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Blanck’s Viola is the anchor in a sea of of eccentric characters cheekily winking at the audience throughout the show: Michael Manuel’s drunken, slovenly Sir Toby Belch; Dylan Godwin’s foppish (and limber) Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Jay Sullivan’s crooning fool Feste; Melissa Pritchett’s conniving Maria; and Mark Ivy’s sometimes bearsuit-clad Fabian. And then there’s Todd Waite’s severe, Karl Lagerfeld-esque Malvolio, who’s coerced “descent into madness” garners some of the production’s biggest laughs.
Elizabeth Bunch’s Olivia is especially funny, in particular when she’s acting out the letter the gang is using to trick Malvolio, and both Bunch and David Huynh, who plays the role of Sebastian, have some reaction shots worthy of The Office. Jason E. Carmichael also stands out, first thanklessly delivering a little exposition as the Sea Captain, and then later earning some big laughs as the Priest.
You’re probably wondering why you’re not hearing more about the high level whimsy in this production, but the truth is you should be surprised. Though I will say that once you see that the stage is surrounded by water, you’re just waiting for someone to fall in. And yes, it is worth it.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Through October 28. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26 to $89.