Twelfth Night

At the Writers Nichols Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Glencoe—The Writers Theatre production of “Twelfth Night” will be a treat for audiences who like their Shakespeare without high concept ideas by the director or designers that attempt to reinvent the comedy. This stylish, well-spoken staging does a lovely job just following the Bard’s blueprint.

“Twelfth Night” has a storyline with two layers that frequently intersect. One layer follows the adventures of twin siblings Viola and Sebastian, The brother and sister are shipwrecked on the island of Illyria, each thinking the other has perished. Viola decides to disguise herself as boy named Cesario and go into service with the Count Orsino, who loves the Countess Olivia.

But Olivia is in mourning for the death of her brother and refuses to have any contact with men.  So Orsino sends his new servant as his emissary to try to break down Olivia’s inflexibility. And as often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies, something unlikely happens. Olivia is instantly smitten with the anazed Cesario. So we have a female masquerading as a male winning the love of another female who thinks the male is a woman.

  Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

The other narrative layer concentrates on Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s roistering uncle, and his cohorts—Olivia’s fool Feste, a ninny of a knight named Sir Andrew Aguecheeck who foolishly woos Olivia, Maria, a gentlewoman in Olivia’s court, and Fabian, a servant. Against this cabal stands Olivia’s steward, the dour Malvolio, who dreams secretly of someday making Olivia his wife.

The Writer Theatre’s production is at its strongest when Sir Toby and his minions are making mischief on stage. Rascals are more interesting than lovers in a comedy and they provide the night’s most muscular humor, abetted by some of Shakespeare’s finest songs, as sung by Feste.

The most entertaining scenes in the play revolve around the plot by Sir Toby and friends to humiliate Malvolio, who has been giving them a hard time because of their all night partying in Olivia’s residence. Using a phony letter, the Belch conspirators trick Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him. The scene in which the gleeful Belch and his friends hide while Malvolio reads aloud the phony love letter from Olivia is a hoot. The downfall of a prig and a spoilsport is always a pleasure to witness.

Halberstam has cast Sir Toby Belch and his colleagues with a flawlessly group of Writers Theatre veterans. Kevin Gudahl (Sir Toby) and William Brown (Feste) provide especially effective realistic comic balance to the airy nonsense of the Olivia-Viola-Sebastian-Orsino romantic roundelay.

It’s good to have Brown back on the live stage after devoting himself to directing in recent years. I’ve never seen a “Twelfth Night” with such a commanding Feste. His clown is realistic, cynical, a little bitter, and callous, at least toward Malvolio. And Brown can sing a Shakespeare song with impressive depth of feeling.

Gudahl is a gleeful Sir Toby, unhesitant about mooching money from the ditzy Sir Andrew and a malicious seeker of revenge against Malvolio for the steward’s prudish interference with the Belch coterie’s drinking and revelry. Cries Toby, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Scott Parkinson is a perfect choice to play Aguecheeck. Parkinson brings out the knight’s silliness and gullibility but injects enough human touches to create a recognizable human being on the stage instead of a foppish cartoon.

Malvolio is one of the more problematic characters in Shakespeare. Sean Fortunato gives us a self-righteous puritan garbed in black. But the cruel abuse heaped upon him by the end of the play may turn the spectator’s sympathies to the man. And a chill goes through the audience when the humiliated Malvolio stalks off the stage promising that he would have his revenge on the whole pack of them. Into this classic comedy has Shakespeare let loose a vindictive maniac? Malvolio’s seething anger does not auger forgiveness and reconciliation.

             Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

The surprise of the ensemble is Andrea San Miguel, making her debut at the Writers as a delicious Olivia who climbs down from her pedestal of mourning to proclaim her love for Cesario/Viola with charm and bits of comic invention that are cute without being cutesy. San Miguel is working with a skilled experienced company in this production but holds her own with her genuinely winning appeal.

The front line cast is completed by Jennifer Larimore as Viola, Luce Metrius as Sebastian, Mary Williamson as Fabian (a role usually played by a man), and Karen Janes Woditsch as Maria. The cast is rounded out by Casey Hoekstra, Nik Kmiecik, John Henry Roberts, and Matthew Yee in multiple supporting roles.

William Boles’s scenic design is dominated by a rear stage panorama of the sea. The panorama, combined with John Culbert’s sunny lighting, creates a bright Italian resort feeling. The most striking visual effects come from Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful costumes, especially the gaudy rococo outfits modeled by Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Josh Schmidt provides the sound design and original music.

The Writers Theatre production is a holiday gift to playgoers ready to enjoy an accessible Shakespeare comedy in an intimate theater with an agreeable mix of younger and older performers. I left the theater carrying vivid memories of Sean Fortunato’s tight-lipped Malvolio and his mighty fall. Andrea San Miguel’s Olivia is the acting revelation of the season for me. All in all, a very nice season’s greeting from the Writers to Chicagoland theatergoers.

The show gets a rating of

“Twelfth Night” runs through December 16 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. with selected Wednesday 3 p.m. matinees, Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com            November 2018

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