The opening note of the play comes from a pack of revelers festooned in Mardi Gras feathers, a fool takes the fore and sings the opening notes of the chorus arranged here as a traditional negro spiritual and off we go. The fool Feste’s (played by Richard E. Waits) haunting, somber baritone sets the stage for a fascinating and rich evening of Shakespeare at the Simmons.
Director Larry Larry Carpenter, deftly moves the traditional Illyrian setting of Twelfth Night to New Orleans and makes liberal use of the rich pallette of masked revelry, feathered hats and voodoo mystery. Basically, Twelfth Night is a giant collection of absurd plot devices centering first around a shipwrecked girl Viola (Grace Morrison), who washes up on the shore mourning her brother Sebastian (Zach Fifer), who she believes has been lost at sea. For some reason (absurd plot device number one) she decides to disguise herself as a boy named Cesario and work in the service of a local nobleman Orsinio (A.K. Murtadha). Orisnio is courting Olivia (Kelsey Rainwater) who is in mourning after the death of her brother and rebuffs his advances. Orsinio sends his “boy” to woo his intended in his stead. Of course, in absurd plot device number two, Olivia falls for Cesario, thinking Viola to be a young man. Meanwhile in Olivia’s court an unctuous steward, Malvolio, (David Andrew MacDonald) incites the wrath of Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Blech (Kenajuan Bentley), a drunkard who pals around with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Conner Marx) an errant night who also courting Olivia at Sir Toby’s urging. Sir Toby and his drinking buddy, along with the help of Olivia’s handmaiden Maria (Susanna Florence) play an elaborate trick on Malvolio to convince him that his boss, Olivia, is secretly in love with him.
Follow all that? Well it’s a dense one, that’s for sure. I’d recommend a little advanced reading before you go. But go you should! The assembled cast under director Larry Carpenter, untangles all the confusion masterly. Carpenter plays up the mystical and magical backdrop of colonial America, grabbing liberally from voodoo undertones and re-envisions the renaissance music that is part of the play as bluesy, dirges. This dark tone gives what is basically a very silly play a depth and sly charm that elevates this old chestnut into new realms.
But, of course, there are lots of laughs too. For example, MacDonald’s Malvoilo is bloody hilarious. A protracted garden scene where Malvolio reads a fraudulent letter requiting his love for the Olivia, is flat out gut busting. The plotters, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian (Freddie Bennett), hide behind a trellis that moves around behind Malvolio as they eavesdrop on his rumination over the letter. Macdonald doesn’t miss a laugh as he hilariously falls into the trap. And, when the trap is sprung, which somehow includes Malvolio donning yellow stockings and garters, MacDonald resists the urge to ham it up, to LOL affect.
Bentley’s Sir Toby another shining light of the show. If this play has a villain it is Sir Toby. But we like him and Bentley plays the drunken uncle trickster with peacock struts and winning charm. His sidekick Sir Andrew comes to the fore in another great bit. Cajoled by Sir Toby into a duel with Cesario he lunges and stretches his lanky form into a cowardly sword fight scene that had the audience rolling.
Finally it is Waits’ Fool, Feste, who provides a extra twinkle to this production. A strange mystical character, the fool flits in and out misdirecting and, at times, redirecting the players down various paths. His resonate voice provides the musical interludes and, at one point, he dons a feathered cape to impersonate a frightening voodoo witch doctor to drive Malvolio further into madness after his failed attempt to woo Olivia. This scene is not funny actually, the pranksters have taken their scheme too far, locking Malvolio in a cell where he begs for mercy. It’s a dark note in an otherwise light-hearted romp.
The rest of the cast is rock solid and pulls off a fine bit of theater directed and designed magically. There are some tedious expository bits here and there but, hey, that’s Shakespeare for you. If you’ve never seen Twelfth Night, this is a chance to see an expertly performed rendition. Twelfth Night plays at the Simmons Memorial Theater through April 14, 2018. For tickets and showtimes, go to here.