Theatre Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ at Folger Theatre

James Konicek. Louis Butelli, Craig Wallace, and Emily Trask. Photo by Scott Suchman.

James Konicek. Louis Butelli, Craig Wallace, and Emily Trask. Photo by Scott Suchman.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

And if music be not the food?  Play on anyway because Folger Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night is nothing short of a feast of delightful visuals and characters, moments of kindness and devilish high jinx, sounds of the bawdy and faces from just this side of madness.

In other words, even if you have seen Twelfth Night a hundred times before, you should see it again, because this time it will leave you delirious with giddy, and understanding just what is meant by a comic catharsis.

Louis Butelli and Rachel Pickup.  Photo by Scott Suchman.

Louis Butelli and Rachel Pickup. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Okay!  Let’s say you’ve had a horrendous week, full of 15-hour days of slogging and haggling, dipped in poisonous back and fingernail biting, crowded with failed negotiations and over-budget spill-offs—and never, never enough sleep.  That theatre event a colleague or a loved one is “dragging” you to had better be one helluva good time or you will be dreaming of some Pacific Island before the first double-take.

Shakespeare—really!  His Twelfth Night?  Are hours of incomprehensible verbiage in a tongue only an Elizabethan might understand what the doctor ordered?  Your only hope is that the actors won’t speak too loudly so as to disturb your snoring.

The houselights fade.  But, wait! The curtain “doesn’t” rise.  Through its sheer negligee a young man and woman stand in their underthings, circa 1900.  They dress each other as the music plays.  They are playful about it, not sexually so, but in a genuine, good-natured kind of way as only the dearest brother and sister might be.  Dressed in ballroom attire, and delighted by each other’s company.  When they are ready, a photographer comes down the center aisle with his flash powder—and poof!  The flash captures the couple’s high spirits.  From the wings, still behind the sheerest of fabrics, others emerge.  Flash!  Flash and flash!

Then, magically, a whirlpool of light and fine drapery begin to swirl.  The young man and woman are caught in the spiral.  The woman is lifted; the man descends to the bottom of the sea.  And the curtain crashes … down!  Yes down, not up!

For in this Twelfth Night up is down and girls might be men and men sometimes resemble bumble bees.  By the end of the show you will be exhausted, not from some horrendous week you no longer remember, but from wave after wave of laughing and loving and living the magic.  What more could the doctor have ordered?

Robert Richmond and his team of Shakespeareans have done it again.  Following on the heals of the brilliant Henry V, and switching to comedy, the team has transformed a 400-year script into a production as immediate as an improv.

Richard Sheridan Willis and James Konicek. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Richard Sheridan Willis and James Konicek. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Before I get to the ensemble for this show, which is without a doubt a community of artists and the show’s central focus, I want to talk about the scenography that envelopes them.  From that first mystical swirling, one could image the huge stained-glass disk hanging like a Ferris wheel from the rafters.  After the curtain crashed and the spiral staircase appeared and the grandest of see-through pianos the spectacle of wonder commenced.   Scenic designer Tony Cizek, costume designer Mariah Hale, lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin, and sound designer Matthew M. Nielson combine their considerable skills and fertile imaginations to conjure a world only a theatre could contain.

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Our Master of Ceremonies is none other than Louis Butelli, who is a Master of Foolery, a clown by another name, so personable in his repartee with both the characters and the audience that one cannot help but excuse his foolish faults.  Butelli’s Feste guides us through the play with a mandolin in one hand and a magic coin in the other.

Feste is the fool of Olivia, played by the singular beauty Rachel Pickup.  In the true spirit of the romantic lead, her Olivia graces the stage with eloquence, remaining oblivious to the shenanigans that her love-at-first-sight induces.  Her suitor, Orsino, played by Michael Brusasco, looks the part of the melancholic Olivia’s future-brooding-tempest of a husband; and in any other world but on this 12th night she probably would be.

…this production of ‘Twelfth Night’ is a wonder and something not to be missed...a tale as timeless as the laughter it induces.

On this night, however, Orsino dispatches his manservant, Cesario, to woo Olivia for him.  Cesario is actually Viola (played with delightful freshness by Emily Trask), who is sister to her supposedly drowned twin brother Sebastan of the opening twister (played dashingly by William Vaughan).  On this night, now dressed as a man, Viola will become the sparkle in Olivia’s eye.  And voilà!  As in any good commedia scenario, one has the makings of a romantic comedy of confusion.

For the real comic stars of the show, however, we have to return to those rowdy men and women who do not have love’s glitter in their eyes, and who like staying up well past midnight.  And we need to begin with none other that Sir Toby Belch and his future bride Maria.  Craig Wallace brings a good-natured charm to Sir Toby’s antics whereas Tonya Beckman’s Maria finds such delight in the sowing of disorder that we can’t but forgive her her trespasses even as she is committing them.

Emily Trask.  Photo by Scott Suchman.

Emily Trask. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Sir Toby and Maria’s two victims are none other than Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio.  James Konicek imbues Sir Andrew with farcical pizzazz.  On the other hand, Richard Sheridan Willis gives the puritanical Malvolio a splendid array of personas, each as delightfully comic as the one preceding it.  And, of course, it is none other than Malvolio who gets to don the costume of the bee.

Rounding out this magnificent company of players is Chris Genebach, who lends the loyal Antonio such genuine feelings of fatherliness that upon his arrest and abandonment in the confusion of identity, we experience the injustice.  When Sebastian returns, their embrace and Antonio’s wonderment at Sebastian’s bifurcation leaves the audience well satisfied.

And then there was Joshua Morgan, who played Valentine, the piano-playing minister who also provides the musical direction and some of the score for the production.  The interactions between and among Valentine and the other characters, and his piano, add an additional level of love and delight to the evening’s proceedings.

Make no mistake about it, this production of Twelfth Night is a wonder and something not to be missed.  Richmond has found a way to make Shakespeare’s comedy a truly informal, personable experience.  Taking full advantage of Folger’s intimate environment, he has allowed the audience and the actors to become “friends,” so to speak.  The ticketed part of the friendship sits down and with good cheer, a little magic, and plenty of song experience a tale as timeless as the laughter it induces.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Twelfth Night plays at the Folger Theater, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC, through June 9.  For tickets click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.