"Twelfth Night" at Center Stage | WYPR

"Twelfth Night" at Center Stage

Mar 24, 2014

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews the Shakespearean comedy "Twelfth Night," now up at Center Stage. "Twelfth Night" continues at Center Stage until April 13.

William Connell (l) and Caroline Hewitt (r) in Center Stage's production of "Twelfth Night."
Credit Richard Anderson

J. Wynn Rousuck's review

“Twelfth Night” seen through the lens of a 1930s Hollywood movie? Well, why not? Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, the comedies adapt best to modern settings.

The updating in director Gavin Witt’s smart production at Center Stage adds accessibility and high style to Shakespeare’s comedy of cross-dressing, mistaken identities and mismatched lovers.

 The first time we see actor William Connell as lovesick Duke Orsino, he’s striking a matinee idol pose; Connell personifies the demeanor and John Barrymore profile. 

The first time we see actress Vanessa Wasche as haughty Countess Olivia, the object of Orsino’s affections, she’s reclining in a slinky black floor-length dress with a little black hat – a fez, really. She’s supposed to be in mourning, but she’s the spittin’ image of a Hollywood siren. (The chic costumes are by David Burdick.)

“Twelfth Night” is the first full production directed at Center Stage by Gavin Witt, the theater’s head dramaturg. A few of his choices may seem eccentric, but they are well-informed, well-researched – and effective.  

The look of the production is a cross between screwball comedies and Film Noir. It enhances the play’s setting: Illyria -- an ancient locale, exotic even in Shakespeare’s day. Geographically, Illyria would have been on the Balkan Peninsula. Witt locates it on the Adriatic coast and imbues it with the mysterious allure of, say, Casablanca.

A pair of twins, Viola and Sebastian, have been shipwrecked -- and separated. Neither knows the other is alive. Viola disguises herself as a man – short hair, glasses, knickers – and takes a job as Orsino’s page. Meanwhile, her brother is tooling around town, coincidentally dressed in the same get-up. 

One of the funniest directorial touches is having Sebastian pop up silently in unexpected places, seconds apart from Viola. It causes the characters on stage to do double takes. 

I won’t get into the intricacies of the tangled romances – that’s part of the joy of the play. And this production is the most enjoyable “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen.

That joy is punctuated by composer Palmer Hefferan’s eclectic score, much of it played by actor Ryan McCurdy on a half dozen instruments ranging from a long-necked archlute to a concertina.

Viola, the cross-dressing twin, is one of Shakespeare’s strong, self-sufficient female characters. Caroline Hewitt is an engaging Viola, but not quite the take-charge type. 

But director Witt reinforces the theme of what it takes for a woman to get by in a man’s world. He boldly casts a cross-dressing actress, Linda Kimbrough, as Feste, the clown, a role usually played by a man. Feste reveals her true gender in the final song, “With Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain.” Kimbrough performs it in a satin evening gown! 

Feste is among the co-conspirators who play a practical joke on Olivia’s pompous steward, Malvolio, simply because he is pompous. Malvolio is a tricky role, but Allen McCullough’s performance evokes comedy – and sympathy – in just the right places.

Many consider “Twelfth Night” Shakespeare’s best comedy, but it has its troubling aspects – chiefly the petty cruelty of some of the secondary characters. Center Stage’s production also has unsettling moments, but it goes a long way toward evening them out. 

After all, what could be a better metaphor for this play full of people posing and pretending to be what they’re not than the ultimate land of make-believe – Hollywood?

-- J. Wynn Rousuck  

Tom Hall interviewed "Twelfth Night" director Gavin Witt and musican and actor Ryan McCurdy a few weeks ago. You can listen to that interview here.

Center Stage recently announced its 2014-2015 season. You can see the list of productions here.