A dazzling Illyria for Twelfth Night at Folger

If you want to start fresh, visit Illyria. The setting of Twelfth Night is, like happiness itself, more a state of mind than solid ground, rife with opportunity for reinvention.

The reality of the place — a portion of which is now Yugoslavia — was nothing compared to the topsy-turvy land into which stumbles the shipwrecked Viola (Emily Trask) at the top of the show. In Shakespeare’s imagining, Illyria is a dreamer’s nation, sparkling with mischief — the perfect stopover for a cross-dressing young woman looking for the chance to let her true colors fly.

The cast of Twelfth Night dances away as Feste (Louis Butelli) strums on his ukulele. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

The cast of Twelfth Night dances away as Feste (Louis Butelli) strums on his ukulele. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Staging Shakespeare these days is partly the art of selecting a new time and place in which to set the show — a presumed need that can feel all too perfunctory. But if there’s one show to do it with, it’s Twelfth Night. Illyria is a timeless fantasy — who, in any era, wouldn’t want to wash up there? — and director Robert Richmond brings the show to fanciful life – this time around as a turn-of-the-20th-century romance, inspired by the 1915 wreck of the transatlantic ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

No German U-boats to be seen here, thankfully — just the ornate remnants of the ship’s torpedoed ballroom, featuring an enormous floating stained-glass window and the colorful husk of a grand piano (the lovely scenic design is by Tony Cisek). That piano, played by performer and music director Josh Morgan throughout much the show, brings the pre-war era to life, offering a sprightly series of rags and ditties ranging from Debussy to Daisy Bell as accompaniment, and canny transition music throughout the show.

(l-r) Emily Trask as Viola ) identity is discovered by Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco),  Olivia (Rachel Pickup as Olivia and William Vaughan as Sebastian, (Photo: Scott Suchman)

(l-r) Emily Trask as Viola ) identity is discovered by Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco), Olivia (Rachel Pickup as Olivia and William Vaughan as Sebastian, (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Cisek’s set meets well with Mariah Hale’s colorful costume design, Andrew F. Griffin’s transformative lighting, and some immersive sound design by Matthew M. Nielson. In full, the show’s a beauty to behold.

But the scenework, too, is sharp as a tack. Richmond — currently on a major streak at Folger after powerful productions of Henry V, Othello, Henry VIII, and Julius Caesar — readily proves his chops with a Comedy. He steers adeptly through straits broad and narrow, embracing Shakespeare’s elevated poetics and baser pranks with equal precision.

Add to that a well-gathered cast, and your coastal stay is very nearly complete. Viola and Sebastian’s boat sinks before the first line is spoken, but there’s much here to keep their proceeding adventures afloat.

That wordless opening shipwreck scene, by the way, is strikingly inventive, and received its own enthusiastic round of applause from the audience on Sunday night. Through an affecting mix of choreography, music, and stage tricks, we track Viola from the final hours of her old life through the violent ruin of the ship and the loss of her twin brother Sebastian (William Vaughan). By the time she inquires what country, friends, this is, we feel close friends indeed.

The man she asks is the fool Feste (Louis Butelli, in a nicely understated performance) who sends her off to Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco), who pines for the Countess Olivia (Rachel Pickup). Trask, mustachioed, is sent off to woo her by proxy. From there, the expected fun ensues.

The comic activity of Twelfth Night is, more than some Shakespeare, pretty unbreakable, but a particularly smart production like this one can sift out overlooked opportunities for laughs. The hapless duel between Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Konicek) and Viola, both of whom would prefer not to fight, is amusingly pathetic (fight choreographer Casey Kaleba unlocks some good laughs in this little bout, among others).

Recommended
Twelfth Night
Closes June 9, 2013
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Washington, DC
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $68
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets
The bawdy, beer-soaked funny business between Olivia’s maid Maria (Tonya Beckman) and Sir Toby Belch (Craig Wallace) carries evidence of sincere affections, not just easy yuks. And a truly inspired performance by Richard Sheridan Willis as the serpentine Malvolio brings us into the old stick-in-the-mud’s heart in ways alternately hilarious, frightening, and heartbreaking.

The oversize punishment brought down on Malvolio for his arrogance makes for a truly pitiful several scenes, and Willis nicely complicates our delight in his comeuppance with a deeply human portrayal of a shamed man. So can an attentive production of Twelfth Night wear its twin masks of comedy and tragedy at the same time, eliciting smiles from shipwrecks and sorrows from the most ardent bouts of love. The twin masquerade at this particular story’s heart offers up moment after moment to turn our frowns upside-down, and our smiles too, and this group never drops the ball.

Trask and Vaughan, both delightful, shake up and subvert the laws of this fantasy land, sending love’s creative and destructive powers on a collision course. But Illyria seems, in the end, to shake off lasting feuds. We have permission, in our newfound shipwrecked freedom, to be not afraid of our greatness.

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Twelfth Night By William Shakespeare . Directed by Robert Richmond . Produced by Folger Shakespeare Theatre . Reviewed by Hunter Styles

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Other reviews

Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Sophie Gilbert  . Washingtonian
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Jeffrey Walker . BroadwayWorld
Xandra Weaver . ShowBizRadio
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Mark Dewey . DCMetroTheaterArts
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide

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