Twelfth Night at Main Street: Heavenly Poetry & Bawdy Innuendo

The set-up:
There's much sack and sparkly fireworks at Main Street Theater. In association with Prague Shakespeare Company, the rich collaboration between the two companies lights up the night sky to usher in the new year.

And what could be more appropriate for the merrymaking celebration that is Epiphany than Shakespeare's beguiling entertainment Twelfth Night, or What You Will. With a panoply of pranksters, drunks, a pompous Puritan, a young man in drag, the wisest of jesters, a set of identical twins, and everyone made mad with love, this fabulous comedy is swathed in song and dance, a happy, light, spinning romance. It's its own revel. You will leave the theater in a very good mood.

The execution:
The production is simple in the extreme, an homage to Elizabethan practice. There's no set, only three revolving cloth panels upstage. For the garden scene, potted trees are carried on. When the scene's over, they're carted off. A bench is used, a chair or two, also. That's it. What catches the eye, and J. Mitchell Cronin's adept lighting, are those ravishing costumes by PSC's Melissa Carson. High boots are trimmed in lace, bodices are tightly tied, sleeves are slashed and puffed, velvet gowns glimmer. Wigs and hair design by Eva Nyklí?ková, from Prague's National Theatre, are glamorously and aptly realized, from Olivia's Renaissance donut roll to tosspot Toby Belch's rat's nest. You know what, that's enough. It's like being at the Globe, where the theater's impresarios (Shakespeare being one of them) spent money on costumes and props and let the audience use their imagination on everything else. Of course, it always helps when the imagination is spurred by the world's greatest playwright. And you're blessed with a cast that sets off sparks of its own.

It's hard to believe that glittering Twelfth Night (1601) was written directly after dank, dark Hamlet with its acute psychological introspection. It's sunny and cheerful, even while its characters are mired knee-deep in the throes of love lost or unrequited. Everyone suffers under love's influence, deliciously so. They act like fools.

They pine, like the Duke (Charles Frederick Seacrease) for unattainable countess Olivia (H.E. Jan Thompson), who's mourning her dead brother, except when she immediately changes course when she encounters Viola (Jessica Boone) dressed as a man. Off goes the black gown and veil. Shipwrecked Viola, crossdressing to protect her in the foreign kingdom of Illyria, has now fallen for her employer the Duke. He seems as smitten by this new boy as by the impervious countess. Meanwhile, the countess's grim steward Malvolio (Bill Roberts) has a secret passion for the countess, wanting to better his station.

Olivia's also wooed unsuccessfully by foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jay DeYonker), best friend of the countess's ne'er-do-well relative Sir Toby Belch (Guy Roberts), constantly besotted and only out for a good time. Belch – what a great name for him – has his gimlet eye set on maid Maria (Bree Welch), perhaps the clearest eye in the pack of love loonies. In cahoots with Belch and Augecheek, she convinces Malvolio that Olivia is passionately in love with him, especially if he wears yellow stockings, cross-gartered, and smiles a lot when he comes to court her. Dour party pooper Malvolio, now prancing and sending off air kisses, is immediately thought mad and locked up.

Of course, that's when Viola's long lost twin brother Sebastian (Karel He?mánek) washes up on shore. Everyone who meets him thinks he's Viola in drag, and complications, already spinning out of control, spin wildly anew. Adding new glints to the festive masquerade is Feste (Peter Hosking), the sage fool, a Shakespearean creation unique to this most unique writer. He's the likable wise-ass who can see the very human foibles in others, pricks their pretensions, and tells it like it is.

This pack of clowns, high and low, is vibrantly brought to life under director Rebecca Greene Udden's knowing hand. In his cups, Guy Roberts' Belch keeps finding another flask in his boots, his pockets, or from the unsuspecting hands of an audience member. Roberts is a superlative droll Belch, an earthy life force who loves “cakes and ale” as much if not more than a good roll in the hay. This minor Falstaff is the play's heart, life's pleasures incarnate, and Roberts, preceded by his distended belly, gives him a roister-doister's appearance, ruddy, rude, and full of “pepper and vinegar.” As conflicted Viola, Boone strikes an amazingly androgynous pose; it's easy to see why both the Duke and Olivia would fall so hard. As the Duke, Seacrease possesses a noble air, even when mopey and preoccupied. He gets the play's most famous line, right at the top of Scene 1, commanding his musicians, “If music be the food of love, play on.” He's as fascinated by his attraction to his boy page, as he's confounded by these new feelings. Meanwhile, Shakespeare slyly winks at us over the myriad gender permutations of the human heart.

Welch, as lusty and crafty Maria, steps right out of a Frans Hals tavern painting, bursting her bustier with charm and undeniable cleverness. As Malvolio, Bill Roberts, pinched and covetous as Scrooge, puts a damper on everyone's fun. But when in the grip of future lechery and position, watch out! The sun shines. He's then as light on his feet as an Elizabethan Astaire, giddy with good fortune. Hosking's Feste is one for the books. Mature, he's been around the block, having seen his employers behaving badly. Yet he sticks around, a forgiving presence, always with his hand out and getting a tip. He plays with us in the audience, as does Belch, smartly and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Thompson, as Olivia, cause of much heartsickness in others, looks as if she just stepped away from posing for the Mona Lisa. Graceful and teasing, watch her hands as she interrogates Viola thinking she's a he. They speak as elegantly as her cultured voice. You can see her feelings for the Duke disperse in the wringing of her fingers. In thrall with Viola she skips off stage. DeYonker's prissy Augecheek is delightfully droll, kicking up his heels in a spritely gigue or running from a duel. Everyone “speaks the speech...trippingly on the tongue,” making knotty Shakespeare easy listening.

The verdict:
Although a throwback to his earlier comedies, the elegant and witty Twelfth Night radiates with indelible characters, laugh-out-loud situations, and Shakespeare's heavenly poetry mixed with bawdy innuendo. In this buoyant co-production, cares are banished, lovers united, and even sour Malvolio, vowing vengeance “on the pack of you” is offered peace. All ends happily. The audience leaves happiest of all.

Twelfth Night continues through January 10 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$39.

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