Friday, September 10, 2004

Twelfth Night

Theatre Review

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is living up to its Tony Award for Regional Theatre with season opener Twelfth Night. This exquisite vision of Shakespeare's beloved romantic comedy would be at home on any of the nation's great regional stages.

For all its disguises and pranks and mistaken identities, the action couldn't be more straightforward: Viola (Angela Lin) has been shipwrecked and washed ashore on the isle of Illyria.

She decides to dress as her twin brother, whom she believes has been lost in the storm, and goes into the service of melancholy Orsino (Anthony Marble) and immediately falls in love with him.

He is obsessed with beautiful Olivia (Mhari Sandoval), who is in mourning for her brother. She rejects Orsino but immediately falls in love with Viola-as-Cesario.

Meanwhile, Olivia's indigent (and usually drunken) cousin Sir Toby Belch (Robert Elliott) gets up to all manner of bad behavior, aided by Olivia's ridiculous suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Noble Shropshire) and housekeeper Maria (Amy Warner). Their primary target is preening major domo Malvolio (Daniel Freedom Stewart).

Director Edward Stern emphasizes clarity and cool elegance for this interpretation. The joy of great Shakespeare is that it's elastic - you can explore from any number of angles and through any number of filters to endlessly illuminate and discover.

Twelfth Night can be sexy or silly or lusty or even darkly sinister, as it was in its most recent re-telling at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. If it's well considered, it's viable.

At Playhouse, Twelfth Night is breathtaking. Stern is clearly intent on ravishing our senses. Set designer Joseph Tilford, who held us spellbound in a glistening neverland two years ago for Ah, Wilderness! again chooses a timeless setting, this time inspired by elements air, earth and water.

The era is defined by the costumes by Susan Tsu, with the aristocrats all looking delicious in costumes that would be at home in a Jane Austen novel.

Lin is a fine Viola, giving her heart and mind; Marble has fabulous Byronic curls above his noble brow as the Duke; and Sandoval is pleasingly warm, more sympathetic than Olivia is usually allowed.

The lovers are shunted aside again and again to allow for hijinks and some surprising cruelty by the crew of comedy supporting characters.

Elliott has been given a Falstaffian belly, which he shakes like a bowl full of jelly, and Shropshire is delightful as the appalling Aguecheek, who has never seen a good hair day.

One of Shakespeare's great creations, Malvolio, gets his due in the hands of Stewart, who sticks his nose in the air with an air, who minces with the best of them and who is moving in his despair when a bad joke goes too far.

What would Shakespearean comedy be without a wise fool? In Twelfth Night, it's Feste. He's our connection between their world and ours, with Kevin Orton dressed in blue jeans worn at the knees and armed with a guitar and a songbook of his own work, which speak to the action with a contemporary tilt.

Twelfth Night, through Oct. 8, Playhouse in the Park, Eden Park, 421-3888.

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