From the artful architecture of the stage and sets to superlative performances, the Alley Theatre brings The Bard to life in this witty and entertaining production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Here’s the story: There is a shipwreck, and a twin brother and sister each believe the other has drowned. The sister (Viola, played by Kim Blanck) is so distraught she decides to dress up as a guy. (Shakespeare likes disguises.) There is a Duke Orsino (Chris Hutchinson, who looks an awful lot like Errol Flynn) who's in love with Olivia (Elizabeth Bunch), although she is having none of it, as she too has just lost her brother. What is a Duke to do? Conveniently, Viola, disguised as Cesario, Orsino’s servant, is sent to court Olivia on behalf of the Duke. But, it backfires when Olivia takes a liking to Cesario. Cesario (who is really Olivia) really digs her employer. Oh, my.
There is also a subplot (actually another whole plot) in which Olivia’s servant, Malvolio (Todd Waite, who brilliantly channels Karl Lagerfeld) is all up in arms about the party-hearty antics of Olivia’s household, which includes her uncle and his friends and her servants, who really just want to have fun. But Malvolio is such a stick in the mud they decide to play a cruel joke on him. Suffice it to say that it involves forged letters, unrequited love, and yellow stockings. Ahem.
Did I mention this is a romantic comedy?
I loved this play from the moment the lights went down, along with rain—real rain! And it was such a beautiful set with that rain that there was actual applause before even one line was uttered. I kid you not. Every scene had set design (Todd Rosenthal for scenic design, and Christopher Akerlind for lighting design) that was perfect—from chaise lounges to gardens to set-ups for torch songs—sometimes with a glamorous Hollywood or even 1920s vibe.
But what I can’t get over is the amazing costumes designed by Katherine Roth. From Olivia’s black and gold floor-length get-ups to stunning bridal attire to the dandy-esque and roguish outfits of the party crowd that Sir Toby hangs out with, I loved, loved, loved, the costumes. It gave this comedy such a fresh and original feel, and every level of design worked was a visual feast that intensified the comedic trajectory. It is something to behold, and even though listening to Shakespeare always presents a bit of a challenge even to the most interested contemporary ears, the design fed into the superlative physical comedy that dominates many scenes.
Excellently directed by Jonathan Moscone and Brandon Weinbrenner, the performances in this play are some of the best I have seen at The Alley. Elizabeth Bunch as prissy and demanding Olivia is spot-on and one of her best performances—a wonderful mix of comic timing and entitlement and lust for Viola/Cesario. Todd Waite is a magnificent Malvolio, and his performance is so physically demanding, I really marveled at how he handled such challenging scenes while still delivering the laughs.
But I have to confess the trio of Sir Toby Belch (Michael Manuel), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dylan Godwin) and Fabian (Mark Ivy) provided a masterclass in ensemble comedy. Whether drunk, scared, or euphoric, their performances were riveting as well as entertaining, and I would see this play again just to see their hijinks intersect in such intricate and amusing ways. These actors are truly fun to watch, but part of the fun is realizing how difficult it is to combine the lush and sometimes high-brow sounding language of Shakespeare with low-brow, laugh-out-loud comedy where the lines and the physical elements merge in perfect synchronicity.
You also have Jay Sullivan as the mercurial Feste (with some great torch singing as well) and some wonderful moments (such as the ones with Jason E. Carmichael as the Priest) that are real scene-stealers and not only were amusing, but such original takes on a well-known comedy.
Steve Martin once famously said “Comedy isn’t Pretty”—and he said it on an album cover. But this production of Shakespeare’s witty and memorable lines and stunning visuals is downright gorgeous. Olivia demands “Fate: Show thy Force," and, if you are lucky, your fate will force you right down to The Alley where you can see Shakespeare shimmer and glow.
Thru Oct. 21. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.