Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.
This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke), and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate. And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.
With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy. Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well. There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio. The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.
Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look. The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.
Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.