The Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night opens with a striking balletic prologue -- a storm and a shipwreck -- that segues into Shakespeare's Act I, Scene ii where Viola [Marina Shay] believes her twin-brother is drowned, and with the help of a Sea Captain [Colin Wulff] determines to survive by disguising herself as a young man in clothes just like her brother's and offer her service to the local Duke.
The Festival stage then magically transforms to Illyria's exotic Turkish-inspired palace [James Wolk's scenic designs are atmospherically lush and the draping of Pamela Scofield's romantic costumes exude character-specific relaxed comfort or uptight rigidity], where lovesick Duke Orsino [Charles Pasternak] speaks one of the Bard's most famous opening lines: "If music be the food of love, play on."
Be prepared: there's a lot of music in director Greta Lambert's inspired production. Capitalizing on Shakespeare's frequent references to music in the dialogue, and to the many songs written into the text, Ms. Lambert's able actors accompany themselves on live instruments and sing a range of styles from melancholy ballads to raucous drinking songs, all of which enhance the mood or reveal the inner feelings of the characters.
There's music in the language too: rhythmic iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, extended vowel sounds, colorful images in even the prose sections that enchant the ears of the listeners and carry audiences along for the ride. -- And as Elizabethan audiences went "to hear a play" rather than "to see it" as 21st Century audiences do, Ms. Lambert takes great pains to have her actors deliver the lines with enviable clarity of speech that makes plot, background information, and meaning easy to follow. From audience responses, it is evident that they grasp details as well as the comic intentions of the script.
There's a lot to keep track of in the merry mixed-up world of Illyria. Viola's predicament in falling in love with Orsino that can't be expressed while she is disguised as the youth "Cesario" is further complicated when she becomes Orsino's emissary to woo the Countess Olivia [Ginneh Thomas] in his place [Olivia has rebuffed Orsino's courting because she is in mourning for her brother's untimely death], only to have Olivia fall in love with "Cesario." And when Orsino begins to have feelings for "Cesario", audiences delight in their discomfort brought on by gender confusion; after all, we know the truth that they do not.
In a secondary plot, Olivia's drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch [Timothy Carter] supports his inept friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [Billy Finn] in his pursuit of marriage with Olivia. While they carouse with Olivia's gentlewoman Maria [Toni DiBuono], Olivia's pretentious household steward Malvolio [Jay Russell] calls them to task...and they, along with Fabian [Collin Purcell] and Olivia's jester Feste [Louis Butelli], vow revenge. -- An elaborate scheme tricks Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him, and while we approve of Malvolio being taken down a peg or two, the trick goes too far, and the pranksters attempt an apology.
And what of Viola's brother Sebastian [Sean Hudock]? Believed to have drowned, he was in fact rescued by Antonio [Rodney Clark], who must keep a low profile in Illyria because of a past altercation there. -- Shakespeare's device is to keep brother and sister separated until the penultimate moment, but the comedy is furthered when Sebastian is occasionally mistaken for "Cesario".
The acting ensemble are in top form. Mr. Carter's Sir Toby is a roguish lovable drunk who goes too far in taking advantage of Sir Andrew and admits his excess in punishing Malvolio; but his good-natured joie de vivre is infectious. The naivete Mr. Finn brings to Sir Andrew, and the willingness of the character to overcome obstacles gain audience sympathy; and Finn's physical dexterity is impressive. Mr. Purcell is a controlled rascal as Fabian. And Ms. DiBuono imbues Maria's cleverness with a confidence touched with coquettishness that breathes life into all the trickery she invents for this rag-tag team to act in harmony.
Mr. Russell creates a Malvolio that audiences enjoy seeing ridiculed. He sneers at just about everyone, and is so pretentiously aloof in his position in Olivia's household, that his pride and desire to rise above his station cry out for a comeuppance. -- This opens the door for him to be duped by the machinations of the pranksters. He interprets a letter he presumes to be from Olivia as an invitation to be her suitor; "Some are born great, some achieve greatness. and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" does the trick, and when he follows the letter's direction to smile and to wear yellow stockings and be "cross-gartered", he is presumed to be mad, and is then further taunted by Feste disguised as Sir Topas. Mr. Russell delivers on every nuance of the role, making us care about him while simultaneously laughing at him; well done.
There's a lot of chemistry at work among the pairs of lovers, as all the right notes are hit. Mr. Pasternak is the epitome of the conventional unrequited lover: barefoot, clothes askew, hair a mess, thoroughly disheveled, he seems to love the exaggerated posture and indulges it for all it's worth. This appeals to Viola; Ms. Shay is so conflicted in her attraction to him, yet must do her duty as "Cesario" and woo Olivia in Orsino's place; so when she speaks her own mind to Olivia's prompting, she is so articulate in defense of love that it is easy to see how Ms. Thomas' Olivia falls for the youth: her demeanor changes in a twinkling from haughtiness to ardent passion; even her clothes change from demure black mourning garments to more revealing and colorful attire. So, when Sebastian arrives on the scene looking every inch like "Cesario", and Olivia proposes marriage, Mr. Hudock's confusion is won over by the attentions of a beautiful stranger; and we approve the match. -- It is unmistakable that each couple is fated to be together, and all the discords must be resolved.
To make this happen, Shakespeare [and Ms. Lambert] recognize that Feste the Fool is the ideal interlocutor who is able to participate in all manners of conversations, and guide the characters and the audience through the complexities of the plot via direct address. asides, narration, commentary, clever twists of language, and numerous songs. Mr. Butelli is perfectly suited to the role. His voice and body are supple, his manner invites the audience to be co-conspirators, his subtle glances suggest that though he knows Olivia is disguised as a boy, he will keep her secret, and the very fact that as an "allowed" Fool he is permitted to tell the truth makes Mr. Butelli the one person who should always be taken seriously.
As traditional comedies have happy endings featuring marriages, singing, and dancing, Feste leads the company in a rousing finale that concludes the evening with good-spirited celebrations.