While not reinventing the wheel with one of the Bard’s more tried and true comedies, CENTERSTAGE’ Twelfth Night uses some intriguing approaches that rise to the surface in this production, directed by Gavin Witt. Shifting focus from the well-penned lines of the play to a more physical approach with slapstick humor, Witt presents a curious interpretation of this comedy of gender-bending mistaken identities
With an unspoken setting of the classically roaring high-fashion 1920’s, Costume Designer David Burdick delights in creating fabulous statements across the cast with this inspired look of bygone couture. While the fusion of plum and grape don’t exactly compliment Olivia’s pallor, the styles of outfits bestowed upon the haughty woman in mourning accentuate every curve of her sensual body. Burdick’s crisp polished suits for the gentlemen of class are only outdone by the striking stripes of his beachwear, all outfitted to the trio of tomfoolery during the baiting of Malvolio.
Scenic Designer Josh Epstein does create a rather grandiose feeling that sweeps along the archways of the set. The soft cream coloring lends itself both to inside the Duke Orsino’s residence as well the garden of Lady Olivia and many points of Illyria therein. The large opaquely frosted doors allow for hints of farce as the characters make melodramatic entrances and exits to the space. They serve a secondary purpose, the spaces left in the wake of these doors, highlighting romance in the shadowy alcoves.
Director Gavin Witt imbues the production with an air of Vaudevillian comedy, hitting notes of Marx Brothers’ style slapstick along the way, particularly when it comes to scenes orchestrated by Violence Coordinator Steve Satta. The entire Malvolio baiting scene is conducted with a fair bit of pop-n-go physical comedy as well. These elements set the play on its comedic edge and augment the funnier moments throughout the text, though it is curious to see the show leaning on the laurels of physicality rather than the Bard’s brilliantly crafted sexual innuendo and other humorous attributes. There are landmark lines to this productions— such as Malvolio’s “her C’s U’s and T’s” that are raced straight over to the point of almost not being heard. Witt’s choice to downplay the verbal wit and focus more intently on the physical elements of the comic spectrum sets the play slightly off-kilter, though it does keep with the integrity of the shift in time era.
Witt’s other superfluous inclusion is the grand dance number at the end of the play created by Choreographer Catherine Miller. Not only does closing the play with this cabaret nightclub style song and dance routine feel out of place but it actually detracts from the simplicity of the work’s happy ending. Trying to create a subdued and jaded feel like a wisp of smoke curling away into the night, Miller’s work while having Feste (Linda Kimbrough) sing like she’s playing a one-night only solo engagement in New York, is an unsettling final moment and a queer note upon which to end the show.
The show’s main protagonist Viola (Caroline Hewitt) is a bit of a disappointment in regards to her overall delivery. Lacking enthusiasm for her dual role on stage Hewitt misses some of the finer nuances of her character’s delivery, letting the gender jokes fall to the wayside. Her performance feels static, a one-note range of experiences that fail to deliver interest to the audience as to whether or not her character succeeds in love with the Duke.
Duke Orsino (William Connell) gives a splendid rendition of a fool in love. Beaming from ear to ear his enthusiasm is quite impressive as he proclaims his woes in a most upbeat fashion. There are moments created in silence between Connell and Hewitt that pander to a curious sensation of Orsino’s own feelings. The puzzlement that lingers on Connell’s face in these moments of discovery is truly priceless, making him a thoroughly expressive character.
Countering Connell’s lamentations of love is the saucy and haughty Olivia (Vanessa Wasche).The pair share bickering quips in the penultimate scene that scathe with amusement and sting with laughter to the audience. Wasche’s approach to the vain character is delicious; hardly contained when her seductive prowess roars out and pounces upon Viola, done mostly with her eyes and the delivery of her text.
Cross-gartered or not, Malvolio (Allen McCullough) is a rigid man with an unyielding, albeit slow growing, temper. McCullough’s finest scene is baffled protestations upon discovering he’s been played the fool. After working himself into a frantic frenzy trying to decrypt his mistress’ love letter, the juxtaposition of defeated recognition becomes a brilliant paradigm of opposites fused together for a richly engaging character. Managing to take Malvolio on a bit of a bumpy ride, McCullough’s character leaves the performance with a withering revenge promise, fully encompassing his purpose in the play.
Feste (Linda Kimbrough) is an interesting character as written; a fool who is wise enough to be witty but witless enough to engage in tomfoolery of the highest variety. Kimbrough brings a unique vocal quality to the production, particularly when asked to engage in song. It is her textual delivery that keeps the audience laughing, a keen understanding of both the Shakespearean language and how to deliver it with solid comic timing very present in her approach.
It’s the trio of tomfoolery that steals the show. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard Hollis) Sir Toby Belch () and Maria (Julie-Ann Elliott) keep the production moving with their swift shenanigans. All eyes are on the trio as they plot the comedic demise of Malvolio. Hollis, as the babbling and blustering buffoon, gives a rousing rendition of a monkey stuffed into a suit; looking the part of a gentlemen without having two witty brain cells to rub together. It is his theatrics, particularly when entering into combat with the youth who hath done him wrong, that keep the audience intrigued and amused with his character.
Reddy is a master weaver of mischief, outdone only by Elliott’s shameless cunning. While Reddy gives a boisterous presentation, owing in part to his character’s perpetual drunken state, Elliott’s slippery nature is more subtle. The pair have great working chemistry and a balanced notion of how to earnestly deliver comedy. It is the scene that the trio shares, the baiting of Malvolio, that achieves the highest comic success of the production. Popping up and down behind the umbrellas and the frozen glances exchanged in that moment are truly hysterical. This magnificent trio of performers makes the show well worth seeing on the whole.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Twelfth Night plays through April 6, 2014 at CENTERSTAGE— 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.