On Stage: Some Enchanted Evening

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Folger’s ‘Twelfth Night’ a whimsical romp through 1915 Ireland.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Konicek) duels Viola (Emily Trask) in disguise, as Feste (Louis Butelli) and Sir Toby Belch (Craig Wallace) look on. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

One thing you can be certain of in a Folger Theatre production is that it will be smart and refreshingly creative. Shakespeare’s plays have been staged over the centuries a seemingly infinite number of times, and producers despair over how to do something different — in modern dress, in repressive Nazi-like uniforms, on motorcycles, in completely different settings. Too often the strain to be different is apparent and distracting.

The Folger production of “Twelfth Night” has found a way to be different that is smart and creative. Instead of being located in Shakespeare’s mythical Illyria, it is now set off the coast of Ireland in 1915 with a historical connection to the sinking of the Lusitania as the focal point. The idea works and serves to effectively highlight the romance and whimsy of this production that is filled with delightful, easily recognizable music of the early 20th century. This is an especially talented cast, with a number of performers also required to play musical instruments and have good singing voices.

It is also a comedic production that at times seems a bit over the top. In the end, however, it works and delights the audience in a production that understands the light, farcical hand Shakespeare wanted to achieve and what his audiences wanted to experience and love.

The vision of the brilliant director Robert Richmond, who also directed the uniquely creative previous production of “Henry V,” proved how deftly he could move from tragedy to comedy. “Henry V” also had some humorous moments and Richmond effectively brought in a musical element to that production as well.

In “Twelfth Night” a piano is kept on stage with a smart and effective Joshua Morgan playing it throughout. At one point, he even plays an accordian. Setting the play in the early years of the 20th century inspired costume designer Mariah Hale to a colorful display of the best and worst fashion ideas of that period.

Louis Butelli as Feste the fool, performing with a ukulele, helped the rapid movement of the action with his antics to the delight of the audience. Each time he picked up the ukulele, the audience knew laughable moments were coming.

“Twelfth Night” is mostly about love, often confused in the game Shakespeare loved to play, in this case with a brother and sister both believing the other drowned and unable to recognize each other and effectively fooling other people until the very last moments. Of course, the sister is fooling everyone in her disguise as a boy.

One of the pleasant surprises for the audience is the realization that “Twelfth Night” has a nearly three-hour running time and you don’t feel the time passing. It bears repeating that Richmond understands how to stimulate his audience and in finding the smart and creative formula for making a well-known and often-produced Shakespeare production without straining to be different.

Twelfth Night” continues through June 9 in the Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, 202- 544–7077. $30-$68, available for purchase here.

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