Optimist’s “Twelfth Night” one to remember
There are a great many things going for Optimist Theatre’s presentation of Twelfth Night. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most highly acclaimed works. It’s set outdoors, in the courtyard of Alverno College. It’s free, if you get there early enough for lawn seats or a reserved seat untaken.
But most impressive of all is the play itself. Fueled by an astoundingly adept cast and crew, Optimist offers an enchanting performance that leaves you wanting nothing more than to remain in Illyria forever.
As imagined by director Laura Gordon, the magical realm of the play’s setting is resemblant to an early 20th century England. Upon these shores washes up Viola (Georgina McKee), the catalyst of the play’s multiple plotlines.
Unlike many of Shakespeare’s works, Twelfth Night is a true ensemble comedy, with no character ever clearly becoming a dominant protagonist, and who gets star billing is commonly decided by individual directors. As the role of Malvolio, the play’s peevish steward, was originally to be played by the esteemed James Pickering before he bowed out due to his wife’s ill health, it seemed this was a part to watch — and it remains so in the hands of the talented Todd Denning.
But this production is not lit by a lone star. It is lit by a constellation, the entire cast shining as vividly as the lanterns that illuminate the stage as night descends.
McKee, as the shipwrecked, gender-swapping Viola/Cesario, is a joy to watch early on as she oscillates between her masculine and feminine personas, and more so as she integrates them into a new, independent identity. While the true love story may be between her and Duke Orsino (Robb Smith), the better one is between her and Olivia (Alison Mary Forbes). Forbes’ initially cold Olivia melts a little more every time she’s on stage with McKee, and her fiery struggle to win “Cesario’s” love is moving enough that it makes you wonder if “Team Violivia” might not be a bad option either.
On the other side of things, a collection of local rogues offset the play’s romances with slapstick. Among them are Sir Toby Belch (Dan Katula) and Maria (Marcella Kearns), the lady’s maid as sharp and severe as he is crude and drunken; Andrew Aguecheek (Ron Scot Fry), a pitiful dandy who wrongly believes himself the greatest knight who ever lived; and Feste (Tom Reed), the archetypal jester who sees much more than he says.
To say their brand of comedy merely sets up other characters would be a crime — they in fact provoke some of the longest and mightiest stretches of laughter in the play — but to not point out Denning’s debt to their characters’ antics would be equally criminal. Without their plotting, he would not have the opportunity to make Malvolio as magnificently cruel as he begins or as pathetically broken as he becomes, and the play would be worse off for it.
And just as no production of Twelfth Night would be complete without the “food of love” so tenderly addressed in its opening monologue, so too would my task be incomplete without mentioning the play’s music. The score, a postmodern mix of jazz and blues, is written by T.J. Hull and performed by his Full Fathom Four quartet and includes a number of tunes sung by the fool Feste, all from Shakespeare’s text save one written by Reed himself.
It’s the final ingredient in an exquisite performance. To see a production with just some of these elements would be a wonderful find. To see one with all of them, well… to paraphrase Shakespeare, if I had not seen it played upon a stage myself, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
Optimist Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night continues June 17-19, with additional performances June 24-26 in the Courtyard at Alverno College. All shows are at 8 p.m. and reservations are highly recommended, as they give you priority for any open seats or lawn seating. For more information or to make reservations, visit Optimist’s website.