Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Brosilow.
Watching William Brown assay the role of Feste in Writers Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night is an absolute joy. Brown’s physical presence and powerful voice add layers to the iconic role of Shakespeare’s witty and thoughtful fool who lies at the center of this rich comedy. Casting Brown was a brilliant stroke: the actor could not possibly be more suited for Feste’s dry, rich wit. And he is just one of many wonderful features of this production, a somewhat darker read of the play than you might be used to but nonetheless tremendous fun.
Twelfth Night is perhaps Shakespeare’s richest comedy, having fun with gender, class, love (of course), drunkenness, the rising tide of Puritanism, mistaken identity, and many other aspects of contemporaneous Elizabethan society. Feste, one of the Bard’s thoughtful fools, reflects the depth of the pool that we are wading in with this play, which is far more complicated even than its central conceit of the shipwrecked Viola (Jennifer Latimore) disguising herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino (Matthew C. Yee) and then falling in love with him at the same time as the mourning Olivia (Andrea San Miguel) falls in love with her (well, him).
Director Michael Halberstam opens the play in a thunderstorm, almost mocking the famous opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on,” which Orsino here shouts over vicious claps of thunder, hearing his love song even in the heavens’ outpouring. As much as that unexpected opening suggests the desperation of Orsino’s love for Olivia, though, it also opens the door for Halberstam to explore a more melancholy version of the Malvolio subplot. Sean Fortunato brings power and overt antagonism to the role of the Puritan steward to Olivia who manages to be the object of two of Shakespeare’s funniest scenes as he discovers the emotion of love running within him after a practical joke played on him by Sir Toby Belch (Kevin Gudahl), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Scott Parkinson)—and does the Bard anywhere else serve up such a pair of wonderful names?—and the servant Fabian (Mary Williamson), along with a bit of help from Olivia’s attendant Maria (Karen Janes Wooditsch). Fortunato dives into both scenes with joy, and Halberstam mines them for every minute bit of comedy, but this only serves to counter the almost overwhelming seriousness when the joke goes too far. (Malvolio’s final threat of retribution to the whole company is about as dark as you’ll ever see from Shakespeare in a comedy.)
Still, this is a comedy, so much more of it is light and full of laughter. The gender-bent wooing all by itself is hilarious, especially once Viola’s presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Luce Metrius) enters the scene. San Miguel, who is as serious and severe as possible playing Olivia in her Puritan mourning, is equally wonderful once her character is allowed to mellow and she (quite literally) takes her hair down. Gudahl and particularly Parkinson are a hoot as the always-drunk Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Metrius and Latimore make the eventual reunion of brother and sister as bright and poignant as it is wonderfully and comically confusing. (Thanks here to Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, which render the two as nearly identical as it is possible for them to be.)
Blumenfeld’s costumes, which are mostly bold and comical caricatures of the kind of embroidery some men wore during the Regency Period, help establish the tone for the production; they could not clash more violently with the black clothing of the Puritan characters. (Interestingly, she places Feste in the dullest of browns, allowing his words to be his entire focus.) William Boles’ scenic design evokes a Mediterranean villa with a lovely portico and the sea visible in the background. John Culbert’s lighting is lovely and, in the case of the Malvolio prison scene, even foreboding. And Josh Schmidt’s sound and original music complement the various moods that Halberstam is creating.
Halberstam’s direction here is impressive. He gets some wonderful performances from his cast, especially Fortunato, Brown and Parkinson, whose Sir Andrew is outrageously comical. Many of the added elements are hilarious, including a few meta moments that Halberstam is not afraid to throw in. This is a Twelfth Night that is a joy to watch, from its sheer silliness to the darkness of Malvolio’s fate, and if you are a lover of Shakespeare it is not to be missed.
Twelfth Night or What You Will is a Writers Theatre production now playing at 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe, through Dec 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.