“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” William Shakespeare probably never imagined a cowboy reciting one of his most famous lines, but Twelfth Night, currently running at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET), is a great comedy with a unique twist. The production, directed by Tim Seltzer, is set in the Wild, Wild West, where Shakespeare’s comedy featuring mistaken identities and misplaced love is reinterpreted featuring cowboys, saloon girls and knock-down, drag out bar fights.
In Twelfth Night, lady Viola washes up on the shore of Illyria after a shipwreck and believes her twin brother is dead. However, in the MET production, Illyria is a rough 1800’s California mining town, complete with a colorful cast of cowboys, saloon girls and the local Sheriff, Orsino. Afraid of her new surroundings, Viola goes to meet and later work for the Sheriff dressed as man, and inevitably ends up falling in love with Orsino while in disguise. Meanwhile, Orsino is busy pursuing pious noblewoman Olivia, and Olivia falls in love with Viola while Viola is disguised as a man. Add in some drunken cowboy relatives, Viola’s very-much-alive twin brother who washes ashore and a sassy saloon keeper, and you have a rocking Western comedy about messy relationships.
Caitlyn Joy gave an impressive performance as the heroine, Viola. In a show filled with over-the-top caricatures and physical comedy, it would have been incredibly easy for Joy to give an overdone, melodramatic performance as a woman masquerading as a man. Instead, Joy gave a brilliantly understated performance, restraining more of the elaborate comedic moments to allow the sincerity of her emotions to shine through and truly engaging the audience with her monologues. In great Shakespearean tradition, the monologues in the show were delivered to individual audience members, making important emotional moments in the show very interactive. The format worked very well with the intimate seating at the MET.
Lisa Seltzer was completely at ease onstage and displayed a commanding presence as Olivia. However, there were several times when her diction was poor and many of The Bard’s beautifully written lines were garbled and hard to understand.
As the secondary characters, Erik Jones as Toby and Matt Kline as Feste gleefully stole the show. Jones had an incredibly commanding stage presence as the constantly intoxicated Toby and hilarious vocal inflection to sound like a true country hick while reciting Shakespearean dialogue. Kline was completely hilarious and has a side-splitting solo moment in Act II while impersonating two separate characters which left the audience in stitches of laughter. Both actors were fantastic as larger-than-life personalities and over-the-top country caricatures. Kevin Cole did an admirable job as Andrew. Though the character is timid and more naïve than his counterparts, Cole was a bit too restrained and failed to match the zany, infectious energy of his co stars at times. Some well-placed modern day ad libs and gestures from all actors were hilarious.
The role of Maria, a lady’s maid, was updated to a saloon girl in this version of Twelfth Night and Amanda Spellman was fantastic. Brassy, self-assured with spot-on comedic timing, Spellman gave an exceptionally strong performance. Dena Colvin was equally impressive as sidekick and saloon girl Fabian. Additionally, Duke Orsino was updated to Sheriff Orsino and Tom Majarov was perfectly cast as the dignified older character. A particularly nice touch was the pre-show speech where Majarov, while in character as Orsino, notified the audience of exits, warned them to turn off cell phones and, in a very intelligent twist, explained that a shipwreck just occurred and all souls on board were lost, thereby brilliantly setting up the first scene of the show.
Jesse Marciniak (Sebastian) displayed incredible charisma and DC Cathro in his dual role as Malvolio/Officer was astounding. Cathro displayed an incredible ease for the Shakespearean language, making the dialogue naturally clear and easily understandable to a modern audience. The famous letter scene was absolutely hilarious. Cathro milked every second of comedic gold and his facial expressions were priceless.
Steve Custer deserves exceptionally special mention for his varied and hilarious ensemble characters. Displaying a mastery of character voices and a knack for physical comedy, Custer made each brief role his own. The re-imaging of Antonio as a flamboyantly gay cowboy was a brilliant idea and, of course, led to some subtle Brokeback Mountain references.
Twelfth Night featured excellent technical elements. Doug Grove set design was perfectly suited to the old west theme, with a Wild-West themed jail house left and old-time saloon house right, with the outhouse directly at center stage, serving as a creative entrance and exit point, well-suited to the physical comedy in the show (He also contributed the excellent lighting design). The fight choreography by Custer was excellent and well-timed to look incredibly realistic. The costumes by Sherry Shaner, the properties by Lorrie Lee, and Thom Huenger’s original musical score added to the Wild West look and sounds and feel.
A unique factor for this production was the pre-show interaction. As audience members were trickling in as the house opened, many of the cast members were onstage in costume, singing country songs and playing backyard instruments, like the washboard and banjo, and improvising comments and lyrics to the audience members. It was a very nice touch and instantly set the comfortable, comedic mood for the production.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission.