Written by William Shakespeare
Produced by Firebelly Productions
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Closeted conspirators: Dave Daniels (Aguecheek), Brian Lee Huynh (Fabian) and John Tweel (Belch) (Photos Ray Gniewek)
This is good Shakespeare. This is damn good Shakespeare.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult comedies, full of implausible developments and astonishing cases of mistaken identity. Firebelly just plays the heck out of it, squeezing out every conceivable laugh with fully realized characters, slam-bang comic timing, and assured, well-conceived direction. In the end, as every comic playwright from Aristophenes to Christopher Durang has known, if the laughs are a-comin’ the plausibilities don’t matter.
O.K., see if this has ever happened to you. Duke Orsino (Ryan Nealy) has been conducting a long-term, highly unsuccessful campaign to win the heart of the beauteous Countess Olivia (Mikal Evans). The Countess, unfortunately, is in mourning for her dead brother, and has been for seven years, making courtship somewhat inconvenient. One day a young man, Cesario, shows up on Orsino’s doorstep looking for work. What Orsino doesn’t know is that Cesario is actually Viola (Amanda Thickpenny), a young shipwrecked woman who has for reasons unclear decided to disguise her gender and seek employment as the Duke’s manservant. Ignorant of the true facts, Orsino sends Cesario to court Olivia on his behalf. Olivia, of course, ignores the message and falls for the messenger.
Amanda Thickpenny (Viola) and Ryan Nealy (Orsino) (Photos Ray Gniewek)
Olivia lives in a household of crazy people. Her bibulous uncle, Sir Toby Belch (John Tweel) has recruited a spectacularly nitwitted knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dave Daniels), to court the Countess. Olivia’s chief steward, Malvolio (Joshua Drew), a puritan and a self-regarding prig, wields his authority with the maniacal assurance of a Congressional Committee Chair with a veto-proof majority. Malvolio’s underling Fabian (Brian Lee Huynh) longs to free himself from his boss’s oppression. Only Olivia’s shrewd lady-in-waiting Maria (Joanna Edie) and truth-telling jester, Feste (Jon Reynolds) lend balance and sense to the household.
Even as Olivia falls for Viola (in the guise of Cesario), Viola falls for the Duke. This being set before the days of Dr. Phil, honesty (beginning with “what’s my gender?”) is on the back burner, and Viola slips double-meanings into her responses to Orsino’s questions with the regularity of a Congressman slipping pork into an amendment. But then things really get complicated as Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Vince Eisenson) – also a shipwreck victim – shows up. As Sebastian is virtually identical to Viola-in-drag, Olivia quickly jumps his bones, and thereafter marries the astonished – and sated – Sebastian. Of course, there remains the moment that Sebastian and Cesario/Viola confront each other; Viola confesses her masquerade and her true feelings towards the Duke; and the Duke reciprocates.
Mikal Evans (Olivia) and Vince Eisonson (Sebastian) (Photos Ray Gniewek)
Well, all right. Maybe it hasn’t happened to you. And – if we need to remove any doubt about it – no one would mistake the ultrafeminine Thickpenny for a boy. Nor would Thickpenny and the unambiguously masculine Eisenson ever be confused for each other, even by Mr. Magoo. But who cares? This is a wonderful production.
What makes it so wonderful? Start with Tweel’s marvelous Belch. Sir Toby was a literary precursor to Falstaff, a little cruder and not as tragic, and the cheerful, charming drunk Tweel puts on stage is properly outrageous without ever being unrealistic. Add to that Daniel’s moronic Aguecheek and Drew’s narcissistic Malvolio, both radiating obliviousness in spectacularly different ways. The athletic Huynh is terrific as the long-suffering servant Fabian. And although Reynolds is a little young for the part of Feste – who was, by the text, jester to Olivia’s father seven years previous – his skills more than make up for this slight deviation. In addition to radiating the startling boldness and searing wit that Shakespeare gives the character, Reynolds has a wonderful, rich singing voice which makes listening to the play’s music extremely pleasurable.