nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
June 15, 2006
Many production companies mounting productions of Shakespeare forget that they originally were very simple—no set, a few spare props, and trusting the actors and the words to tell the story. Kings County Shakespeare wisely takes this approach with Twelfth Night, letting the machinations of the plot and the skill of the cast carry the show.
Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's later comedies, is a love triangle set into motion when Viola and Sebastian, a pair of twins, are victims of a shipwreck. Viola (Brie Eley) washes up on the shore of the mythical land of Illyria, where she disguises herself as a boy and enters the service of Illyria's duke Orsino (Neimah Djourabchi). Viola soon falls in love with him, but Orsino has his eye on the aloof Countess Olivia (Rachel Alt), and enlists the disguised Viola as his messenger to bear Olivia his pleas for affection. Olivia soon falls in love herself—but with Viola. Soon, Sebastian (Jovis DePognon) also turns up in Illyria, further confusing matters.
Eley does a fine job with Viola, but seems more amused than alarmed to find herself the object of Alt's affections. Djourabchi's Orsino seems to come from a different production entirely—the rest of the show is set in the 18th century, in both costume and deportment, but Orsino's palace seems almost like a Turkish retreat, with everyone sprawling on cushions and Orsino, clad in silk robes, prone to laying his head on the nearest shoulder or lap. However, this leads to a poignant moment in a scene when Orsino complains to Viola about his romantic difficulties, and leans his head on her shoulder; the look that crossed Eley's face in that moment said far more than any of the lines could.
Then there are the clowns and their subplot. Ronald Cohen and Nicole Potter are clearly enjoying themselves as Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch and Olivia's gentlewoman Maria, respectively, hatching a scheme with their companions to poke fun at Olivia's curmudgeonly steward Malvolio (Joseph Small). The program notes make the argument that the conflict between Malvolio's puritanical nature and the free-wheeling Belch could be taken as a comment on the moral debates of today; however, Small's turn as Malvolio reads as more of a pompous spoilsport rather than a stern voice of moral authority. Fortunately, it's still fun to see him turned into the butt of one of Sir Toby's jokes, largely because the rest of Sir Toby's crowd is so clearly amused with themselves (one of Olivia's servants, played by Glenn Urieta, made me laugh out loud simply by delivering one of his lines with a barely-suppressed giggle).
Two standouts are Martina Weber, as Olivia's Fool, and Ian Gould as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a companion of Belch's who also is wooing Olivia. Weber plays the Fool, interestingly, as a no-nonsense sort, making deadpan comments on the absurdity of things rather than being absurd herself—something like an Elizabethan Jon Stewart. Weber also joins the show's "house band," a pair of traveling musicians, for two songs. Gould, on the other hand, has great fun with the physical comedy, without lapsing into shtick. He also seems to somehow have fantastic chemistry with every single member of the cast, giving even a duel between Aguecheek and Viola some comic turns—to the point that I actually wanted to see the duel go on a little longer.
Director Deborah Wright Houston puts the focus of the show squarely on the cast; the extremely pared-down set consists only of two benches and three curtains, and a scattering of throw pillows for the bits in Orsino's quarters. The danger in this approach, though, is in any of the cast's missteps being that much more noticeable; while the leads were fine, there were one or two folk in smaller roles who seemed to still be a little unsure of their footing. It does speak well of the cast as a whole, though, that they gave it their all despite a small audience; this is a show that deserves to be getting bigger crowds.