Adoring and adorable, Twelfth Night serves up all the courses of Shakespeare’s infinite variety at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. It’s a sunny production in this midwinter of discontent as staged by Artistic Director Ted Pappas who conveys his love of this play and its writer with creative respect to Will’s words and songs.
Twelfth Night masterfully balances thoughtfulness and laughter, transporting us to lands of wishes and memories with something for everyone and, as Will subtitled it, “what you will”. Except for pitching the audience into dramatic darkness and chaos (thanks to lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Zach Moore) during the opening storm at sea and the mean-spirited bullying of a Puritan, you will otherwise revel in the joy’s of PPT’s jewel of a production while appreciating Shakespeare’s keen observation of human nature.
From Illyria’s coast at lights up, Viola moves into Duke Orsino’s pre-World War I court to create a new life when she survives a shipwreck without her twin brother. Twelfth Night, written for the court festivities of Queen Elizabeth I, summons the playwright’s own cherished treasures–his twin children and a cartful of cleverness to delight the Elizabethan court. The Shakespeares lost their only son Hamnet at age 11, so this comedy may well be as much a bittersweet and witty pastiche as Hamlet is a complex and dark drama born from the ruminations that follow family tragedy.
Shakespeare’s play is a cunning construction of wordplay and characters. There isn’t a wasted word, action, or song in this production as Pappas mines all the levels of the text, likely first performed in January 1601 and set at PPT in 1912.
The production captures the elegance of a society not yet shaken by the tragedies of wartime, such as the fictional residents of Downton Abbey. Scenic designer James Noone’s set features complimentary Georgian townhouses with plazas, gardens, and a center-stage gazebo appropriately occupied by a piano, keeping the action taut and fast-paced on the O’Reilly’s thrust stage. Michael Moricz again creates another original PPT score; it admirably soars and underscores both scenes and the songs featured in the program book.
Mitchell Jarvis’ Feste, a Broadway vet and Carnegie Mellon alum in his PPT debut, occasionally steals the show with fully-staged numbers that are a delightful cross between music hall and musical theater. His showmanship leaves us wanting more, and he manages the clown’s complex jokes admirably as any Feste I’ve seen on stage.
The ladies truly shine in this production as three outstanding PPT artist are integral to the action. One of Shakespeare’s take charge female characters, Viola would have originally been created by a male player. Carly Street draws a spunky, resourceful sister who we might imagine campaigning with Suffragettes if Viola hadn’t been thrown onto this strange island. Street confidently retains her womanly wiles in a man’s world, posting as “Cesario”. Her three-piece suit may be business attire of the early 1900’s, but her posture and acumen is all about women’s 20th-century journey. Street applies her comedic savvy to some of Shakespeare’s most familiar words. Her memorable “willow cabin” speech is a production highlight. Street has the fresh spontaneity of a young lawyer in the courtroom during an ad-libbed summation when she jumps up on a bench to woo Olivia on behalf of Count Orsino.
Gretchen Egolf’s Olivia creates a lovely portrait of early 20th century mourning, showing off Gabriel Berry’s clever gowns that travel from buttoned-up black to lacy black and white. As Olivia sheds the pain of losing her father and brother (as does Viola), her smile returns as she returns to the business of her household. Egolf brings a classic elegance through her speech and charming exchanges with fellow cast members, particularly as she falls for Viola as Cesario.
A leading Pittsburgh classical artist Helena Ruoti is Maria, devilishly plotting against Olivia’s steward Malvolio. Ruoti’s Shakespeare chops included her own Viola back at the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival and here she applies her comic knack to propel “the whirligig of time” with merry results. Her affection for Olivia’s drunk uncle Toby and her teasing of his cohort Andrew stir the audience’s laughter.
And here’s so much more as this stellar ensemble inhabits some of Shakespeare’s top characters.
Brent Harris as Malvolio displays a lovely range as the efficient steward in Olivia’s household. From his full morning coat ensemble to his ridiculous yellow stockings and cross garters, Harris also sheds layers of costuming. Stuffy, perhaps, but he’s in love with his mistress. His Malvolio is set up for one of Shakespeare’s most delightful scenes of deception, as he postures with the love letter forged by Maria while a moving box hedge hides his eavesdropping tormentors. Pappas’ direction and Harris’s impeccable performance create a scene to savor.
Timothy D. Stickney’s Orsino is less melancholy and more hopeful, providing a strong core around which much merriment spins. Stickney’s wonderful presence supports the play’s connection to love and loyalty, from his “If music be the food of love” to his comfortable realization that he is smitten with Viola even as he thought “she” was a “he”.
John Ahlin weaves mischief as Toby Belch with bombast and a gentle spirit. Daniel Krell’s Andrew Aguecheek is more sweet than silly, looking smart in his mismatched argyles.
As Viola’s twin, Sebastian, Max Rosenak is darling with his aides and when he is wooed by Olivia and defends Drew Stone’s Antonio, the crewman who saved his life. Tony Bingham doubles aptly as the ship’s caring captain and a smart Fabian (here a chauffeur at Olivia’s house). He’s joined by Chad Bender as Curio, Andrew Miller as Valentine/Second Officer, and Don DiGiulio as Servant/Second Officer to provide support, including some musical backup, including Miller on guitar.
The mistaken identities and Elizabethan concepts of gender identity certainly have resonance today. Certainly a great “first Shakespeare”, this production retains the most obvious bawdy jokes but it seems less inappropriate than what kids may be viewing elsewhere. PPT suggests audience members be age 10 and older.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Twelfth Night continues through February 26, so it’s a perfect excursion with your Valentine, colleagues, or, better yet, siblings. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger