The Theatre at Monmouth’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is a fast-paced farce full of physical comedy, bawdy asides and hysterical romantic mix-ups.
Director Kristin Clippard sets the play on Jan. 6, 1890. She said in her program notes that the Victorian period, “being one of strict social etiquette and strong gender bias,” lets the characters push against those restrictions. It also allows costume designer Stephanie Peters to make some exquisite and delightful outfits for this cast.
Some directors emphasize the romantic angle of “Twelfth Night” with Orsino madly in love with the Lady Olivia, who in turn has fallen for Viola, who is disguised as a boy. For her part, Viola, who believes her identical twin brother Sebastian has been lost at sea, loves her new master Orsino.
Clippard has gone full throttle on the farcical aspects of “Twelfth Night,” using the talents of Monmouth veterans and skilled newcomers to bring theatergoers to tears of laughter. The physical comedy of the show, the clever use of potted props and the breakneck pace of the action makes this one of the most memorable productions at the Shakespearean Theater of Maine.
Katie Croyle is a dynamic and charismatic Viola. A student at Brown University working toward her master’s degree, Croyle’s low voice and her ability to walk and move like an adolescent male, make her so believable as the boy servant, the audience often forgets she’s really a girl.
As Olivia, Kendren Spencer beautifully portrays a young woman roused from grief over the deaths of her father and brother by the mysterious Cesario, the disguised Viola. Her passion for Cesario is equaled only by her disdain for Orsino. Spencer is a powerhouse of emotional that fits the character like a finely sculpted bodice.
Monmouth’s Producing Artistic Director Dawn McAndrews dubbed this season, “Roar, the Year of the Woman.” Croyle and Spencer roar in “Twelfth Night” like the sea that shipwrecked Viola and Sebastian. These women are able — through luck and sheer force of will — to get who they want in the end.
The comic genius of the show is the interplay among the characters Sir Toby Belch (Bill Van Horn), Maria (Janis Stevens), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark S. Cartier), Malvolio (James Noel Hoban) and Fabian (Kevin Aoussou), all members of Olivia’s household. Their antics are fueled by drink, lust, money and revenge.
Van Horn, Stevens, Cartier and Hoban are Monmouth veterans. This quartet expertly wrings every ounce of comedy from Shakespeare’s language. Under Flippard’s direction, the physical comedy takes on a Marx’s Brothers feel that amps up the hysteria in the second half.
Cartier, who gave a deeply moving dramatic performance in “Talley’s Folly” in 2002, has been underused in recent years. He gives Aguecheek a mischievous intelligence few actors bother to look for — most play him simply as a fool.
Van Horn, whose Shylock in TAM’s 2008 production of “The Merchant of Venice” was unforgettable, is all bluster and bravado as the lovable drunkard. Stevens is his match in hatching the plot to humiliate Malvolio, but to Olivia, the actress shows Maria’s maternal, caring side.
And then there is Hoban’s Malvolio, the uptight, upright steward who runs Olivia’s household. His transformation from by-the-book butler to impassioned lover is hysterical. Hoban is so convincing it is hard for theatergoers not to feel a tad of sympathy for the character, but it gets drowned in tears of laughter.
These Shakespeare veterans easily could have overcome newcomer Aoussou, whose Fabian is a minor but essential character to the plot. Instead, they bring him into the fold and generously offer equal footing. To his credit, he keeps up with them.
Under McAndrews and Clippard’s visions for the season, “Twelfth Night,” romancers Orsino (Marshall Taylor Thurman) and Sebastian (Ryan Broussard) sometimes get lost in the focus of farce. Both give good but not memorable performances, in part, because the passion exuded by Olivia and Viola overwhelms theirs in every scene.
In addition to Peter’s lush and, in Malvolio’s case, outlandish costumes, Miranda Friel’s set and Daniel Taylor’s lighting design add to the production’s lighthearted mood and farcical feel.
This “Twelfth Night” is truly a triumph for McAndrews — who took over the reins of Monmouth nearly six years ago — Clippard, her cast and the design team. This is a fine and funny production that will satisfy Shakespeare scholars and theatergoers experiencing the Bard for the very first time.
“Twelfth Night” will be performed through Aug. 19 in repertoire with other plays by the Theatre at Monmouth in Cumston Hall. For information, call 933-9999 or visit theatreatmonmouth.org.
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