I don’t know about you, but as the national news has become scarier and more depressing by the minute, I look for moments of joy and pure amusement. This past weekend, I sat on a picnic blanket enjoying snacks with my kids in the middle of Westerly’s gorgeous Wilcox Park, and I watched one of those lovely moments play out in the Colonial Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It seems every town has their own version of Shakespeare in the Park, and each one wants to make its own mark. The Colonial Theatre does something almost unheard of these days — it trusts the playwright to tell a fun story without adding a gimmick. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies. The script is full of double entendre, mistaken identity, drunkenness, foolery and song. There’s something for everyone.
Viola is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. She believes her brother Sebastian to be drowned, so she dresses as a man in order to enter the service of the Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with Olivia, and sends the disguised Viola as an emissary to express his love. Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking Viola is a man. Meanwhile, Viola has fallen in love with the Duke. There’s a fun comic subplot, and Viola’s brother shows up alive. Madness ensues until a peaceful resolution with marriages for everyone. Well, almost.
Something modern audiences do not often get is a director who trusts their audience to understand The Bard. Director Harland Meltzer walks a fine line between trusting his audience and helping people understand some of the more dense language. One of the most interesting aspects of this particular production is Meltzer doesn’t feel the need to give his own opinion of gender roles or sexuality. Shakespeare has already loaded the script with questions, philosophy and suggestions of homoeroticism. Meltzer very simply allows the script to lay out questions, inviting the audience to form their own opinions. On the other hand, he cleverly blocks and choreographs actors’ movements in a way that illustrates what the actor is saying without insulting anyone’s intelligence. Meltzer and his actors are more successful in this than any Shakespeare production I’ve seen in several years.
The acting in this production is phenomenal. Lee Fitzpatrick (Olivia) is so natural with the poetry she speaks, you almost forget it isn’t everyday conversation. She is a regal presence on stage, and is excellent at flipping between privately lovestruck to publicly annoyed at her object of affection. Henry Gardner (Sebastian) and Chris Perrotti (Antonio) are both natural with the language and each other, playing with the sexual ambiguity of the characters without comment. There are some fabulous physical comedians in this cast, including Jon Peacock as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Peacock doesn’t force the jokes out of his character. He let’s the ignorance of the character speak for itself. Peter Tedeschi (Malvolio) is so puritanical, it almost gets boring — that is, until the infamous letter scene. Tedeschi then unleashes his comic side, leaving the audience laughing out loud. Richard Herron, as Feste, was by far the stand-out performer of the evening. Not only was as natural with the language as Lee Fitzpatrick, he was more physically engaged with the language than any of the other actors. He danced around the stage, using his entire body to get meaning across. Herron also has a superb singing voice, showcased throughout the production.
The only dud in this cast sadly comes from the leading lady. Katrina Michaels (Viola) does not have the same command of the language that her castmates possess. Because the rest of the cast is so good, she stands out from the opening moment. She overdoes her dramatic pauses, slowing down the pace of her scenes. The other actors have to work hard to continue to respond to her as she draws out her vowels until it’s painful. She whines over her brother’s supposed death, and her unrequited love, and her brother showing up alive and well, and finally over her love being returned. There’s so much whining, it’s hard to track what emotion she’s actually trying to portray — they all sound the same. Thankfully, the rest of the cast is strong, and as soon as Feste takes the stage, we forget all about Viola.
The Colonial Theatre has been presenting outdoor Shakespeare in Wilcox Park for 26 years. With productions like this year’s Twelfth Night, it’s easy to see why. They have an excellent formula: standard set, great lighting, all of the actors are mic’d, beautiful costumes and some of the best Shakespearean actors around. Not only do you get an excellent production, you get to see it in the beautiful Wilcox Park.
Twelfth Night ran through Sunday, August 13.