Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ at Imagination Stage Acting Conservatory

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Imagination Stage’s production of Twelfth Night is an inventive update of Shakespeare’s classic play. Adapted and directed by Randy Baker, the show features the teenage actors from the Acting Conservatory’s graduating class of 2018 playing all the roles, with a change in gender to several characters. The result is Shakespeare in a modern setting, intimately familiar to young people today.

Noah Simon, Grace Bullard, and the cast of Twelfth Night. Photo by Jeremy Rusnock.

Even though the setting is contemporary, the plot remains the same. Grace Bullard gives an innocence to Viola, shipwrecked in a strange place, searching for her twin brother Sebastian (Noah Simon). Hiding her long hair under a baseball cap, she goes to work for Orsino (Alok Barua), a wealthy boy infatuated with Olivia (Ester Luna). Bullard squeals in delight when she first sees Barua. These two have a wonderful if unusual chemistry. During one musical scene, they look at each other silently, love plainly in Bullard’s eyes. When Bullard reveals her gender, taking off her cap, Barua sighs comically in relief.

Barua plays Orsino with an aloofness. When everyone else is dancing, he stands to the side, planning how to win over Olivia. Towards the end, he gets emotional at Viola’s apparent betrayal, waving her off in disgust. His proposal is quick and amusing, dropping to one knee. In the last scene, as everyone runs off, they remain, holding hands and standing close.

Ester Luna gives a quiet strength to Olivia. At her first meeting with Viola, she and her friends play with their phones as they talk to her, barely paying her attention. Soon, though, Luna exudes passion, chasing after Bullard and proclaiming her love for who she thinks is a boy. Luna even kisses Bullard at one point, causing Bullard to flee. Her anger when it seems Bullard has betrayed her is palatable.

Ellie Strickland and Alok Barua in Twelfth Night. Photo by Jeremy Rusnock.

Rozie Hoff plays Toby with wonderful physical comedy. She begins the play passed out in front of the stage. She hugs Andrew (Eli Faber) so aggressively that he falls over. She rushes towards Viola, others holding her back. During Malvolio’s (Zoe Abel) examination of the letter, she sneaks across the stage, at one point lying flat in front of Malvolio. At the play’s end, she races offstage holding Fabian’s (Ellie Strickland) hand. She is a pleasure to watch.

Eli Faber is also a hoot as Andrew. Preparing to fight Viola, he spins across the stage. Using a rake as a weapon, Toby must turn it the right way around for him. Attacking Sebastian, he flies across the stage, almost hitting a bench; the audience hoped he wasn’t really hurt.

As Feste the Clown, Eva Levy dominates the stage with her musicality. As the audience enters, she sits on the stage, playing the guitar and singing; one wishes she had a microphone to hear what she plays. She sings Shakespeare’s songs in a modern key, whether on the guitar, ukulele, or drums. Playing the bongo drums, she surprises Viola, sleeping on a bench. She teases Malvolio, chasing her around the stage. Her final song is done softly and with a melancholy tone. In the middle of it, she briefly stops, then sits down for the final verse. It is a wonderful performance.

Zoe Abel gives a vulnerability to Malvolio. She is meek and easily frightened at the beginning, starting at Viola’s appearance. Thinking Viola is in love with her, she becomes much bolder, declaring her love and pursuing the woman across the stage, kissing her hand and twirling her into a dip. Dragged offstage, her cries for Olivia are heartbreaking. Blindfolded and bound, she pleads for help. Her final words are drenched in shame and fear. It is the most sympathetic portrayal of Malvolio this reviewer has seen.

Celestine Ranney-Howes does a great job as costume designer, keeping the outfits contemporary yet distinctive. Orsino wears a grey, dress jacket and pants with a light blue shirt. Viola and Sebastian both have blue jeans, a red and white striped shirt, black boots, and a purple baseball cap. Toby wears a red dress and black boots, while Andrew has a grey t-shirt, red sweater, blue jeans, and a grey beanie. Olivia has a black skirt with sparkles, a red shirt, and a black sweater. Feste wears a purple t-shirt, dark khaki pants, and a brown cap. Malvolio starts the play in a brown and red long sweater, then changes into a yellow, long sweater with black and yellow leggings.

The set, with Danielle Harris as scenic designer, is spare but effective. Two sets of steps on either side of the stage lead to raised platforms. Two benches are at the front of the stage, on either side. Four clear screens are placed in various places behind the stage.

Kris Thompson as lighting designer and Sarah O’Halloran as sound designer have done wonderful work. At the start of the show, lighting effects give a sense of lightning, while sounds of thunder and the sea provide dramatic effects. Colored lights enhance the party atmosphere in the beginning, and the light darkens when Malvolio is imprisoned. Cell phone sounds ping all throughout.

Director Randy Baker has done an excellent job. The actors navigate the stage and each other easily, using every inch of the theater, including the stairs to the audience. They speak Shakespeare’s lines easily, the language understandable. With the help of Wyckham Avery as physical comedy specialist and Megan Behm as fight choreographer, they perform incredibly physical stunts. During the big fight scene, there are at least three different fights occurring, all of which feel natural. The opening scene is a well-choreographed dance of a shipwreck. This is a Twelfth Night for 21st-century young people. Only one performance remains, so be sure to catch it!

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Twelfth Night plays through April 29, 2018, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. Parking is free in the attached garage. For tickets, call the box office at 301-280-1660, or purchase them online.