The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival opened its 54th season last night with a winsome Celtic-styled “Twelfth Night, or What You Will.” Directed by producing artistic director Brantley Dunaway, this gender-switching, mistaken identity romantic comedy is sweet enough to serve as a date-night destination but sufficiently silly for a night out with friends, too.
A storm wrecks a ship off the coast of Illyria, separating spirited Viola (Madison Dunaway) from her twin brother, Sebastian (Kyle Curry), whom she assumes dead. These are dangerous times for a lady unaccompanied, so she dons men’s clothing and transforms into “Cesario” to enter into service with the local duke, Orsino (the quite funny John Pasha), a preening, love-sick goof mooning over his neighbor, Olivia (Rosie Ward).
Olivia won’t have him, so Orsino dispatches Cesario to woo her on his behalf, but Olivia gets the hots for Cesario (Viola in disguise, remember?) instead. Meanwhile, Viola finds herself developing romantic feelings for Orsino, but since he believes she’s a boy, she’s punted squarely into the friend zone. Sexual tension abounds.
This production skillfully highlights two divergent approaches to romance that play against type. Orsino, as it turns out, despite his self-indulgent wallowing and vanity, falls sincerely for Viola’s personality and spirit before he knows she’s really a woman, while Olivia’s attraction to “Cesario” is pure lust – and (spoiler alert!) she replaces him with Viola’s twin brother without missing a beat.
Indeed, once Sebastian enters the picture, one begins to suspect a more fitting subtitle for this play would be “Everyone’s a Little Near-sighted in Illyria,” as Dunaway and Curry are supposed to resemble each other so strongly that matching ponytails and costumes are enough to fool even their closest friends. Just go with it. And if the rom-com love triangle hijinks approach plays gender-bending attractions for laughs, they are redeemed by the dignity with which Antonio (Chris Ryan) is allowed to show his unwavering, if unrequited, love for Sebastian.
Meanwhile, as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the fools steal the show. “Twelfth Night” boasts a rich subplot of Olivia’s drunken court hangers-on and servants banding together to serve a come-uppance to her priggish steward Malvolio (Jonathan Visser). Amy Barrick is a firecracker as Olivia’s mischievous maid Maria, who, along with drunk-uncle Sir Toby (Paul Kiernan), undignified knight Sir Andrew (Brad Frazier), jester Feste (Peter Riopelle, a wry gem) and possibly-French servant Fabian (Matt Lytle), tricks Malvolio into believing Olivia loves him. Together, this group enjoys great comedic chemistry, and the interplay of Visser’s stork-like pomposity and Riopelle’s sly, self-possessed wit is especially delightful to watch.
The “fantasy Celtic” treatment layered over Shakespeare’s play is evident in all elements of design, from Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s luxe-rustic set (complete with working waterfall) and costume designer Shon LeBlanc’s leather kilts and Gaelic knots to Bentley Rhodes’ many original music compositions, played by an actual Irish folk band on stage. The music offers the most additional value to the production – who doesn’t like a little Irish music on a summer night under the stars? – but the mish-mash of accents on stage can distract at times (where did the French guy come from?).
Producing outdoor theatre can be a challenge under the best circumstances, and Kentucky Shakespeare has always done an admirable job of playing to the entire amphitheatre and working through the myriad distractions their Central Park location provides, low-flying airplanes and wailing sirens included. On opening night, the sound started out rocky (up-stage microphones seemed to work only intermittently) and grew worse, until it cut out entirely in Act II, followed by the lights. The cast soldiered on with good humor, and when the sound and lights were restored, the issues were fixed.
But the technical support of sound and lights can’t carry the burden of projection of every detail to the back of the amphitheater. One particularly tender close-up moment between Orsino and Viola – he paints a design on her arm as the musicians play – likely played well to the first few rows of VIP seating but, due to its position on stage, didn’t translate well even to the second row of bleachers. Unfortunately, the magic of small, intimate moments like that can dilute easily in the outdoor atmosphere.
If you haven’t been to a Shakespeare in the Park production in a few years, here’s a brief round-up of the changes: there’s bar service, so please don’t smuggle in a bottle of wine in your purse; the show is free, as it has been for 54 years, but the first six or so rows are ticketed VIP seats ($25, reserve in advance), which come with wait service.
“Twelfth Night” opens Thursday in the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Central Park and runs through July 14. The Players Conservatory, the festival’s high school acting troupe, will finish the season with “The Taming of the Shrew,” July 18-21.