One of the beautiful things about Shakespeare’s plays is how infinitely adjustable they are. You can go broke building realistic castle sets and kitting everyone out in sumptuous period costumes, or you can take a bare set and add in just enough detail to suggest setting and character. Savage Rose Classical Theatre opts for the latter treatment in their new production of “Twelfth Night,” the cross-dressing rom/com about the misadventures of a shipwrecked set of fatherless twins.
To begin with, the actors are warming up on stage before the show begins, and they often hang out on the visible sidelines between their scenes. Shana Lincoln’s economical and effective costumes are donned over the actors’ own jeans and leggings. It’s a delightfully disarming approach to Shakespeare that allows the acting talents of the company to shine, and the deceptively casual “hey, let’s put on a show!” appearance is a fitting tribute to the traditionally rowdy Twelfth Night celebrations, when the Lord of Misrule presided over the socially-sanctioned transgressions (gender-bending, class inversions, bawdy shenanigans) of the feast that takes place between Christmas and Epiphany.
Directed by Charlie Sexton, “Twelfth Night” opened last night at Walden Theatre and runs through Dec. 21. The production opens their “Season of Storms,” which will also include Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in March and “The Tempest” in June.
“Twelfth Night” opens in a storm, and the beginning shipwreck scene effectively sets the stage for this lo-fi production. A costume garment rack becomes ship’s rigging, with sailors and passengers hanging on for dear life as it sails across the floor. The company nails the movement of this scene in which the only sound cue, as far as I could tell, was a rain stick played by one of the actors.
After the storm, high-born Viola (Julane Havens) finds herself alive but separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Mike Slaton) and most of the crew on the shores of Illyria, a daffy little duchy where the lovelorn Count Orsino (the excellent Jon Patrick O’Brien) whiles away time by wooing indifferent noblewoman Olivia (Hallie Dizdarevic) through his courtiers, passing them to her estate like so many human mash notes for her to rebuff, while her rowdy uncle Sir Toby (Sexton, an absolute treat) mixes it up with the servants and tries to set her up with his ludicrous pal Sir Andrew (Neill Robertson).
Viola somehow intuits that Illyria is the weirdest of all of Shakespeare’s comedic settings — the servants have way too much autonomy, and nobody’s particularly interested in usurping power or even snagging a good court position here, they’re all too drunk or too emo — and so she dons a boy’s outfit, calls herself Cesario, and lands herself a job with the Count. Of course she falls in love with him. He’s very cute and kind of sad, a combination lethal the world over. And of course Olivia falls in love with Viola-as-Cesario — she’s very cute and a hell of a lot of fun for Olivia, whom Dizdarevic plays with guts and gusto.
Sexton mines Illyria’s wackiness for all it’s worth — this production is heavier on the com than the rom. When secret pirate Antonio (Ben Park) is arrested for his previous crimes against Illyria, and he mistakes Viola-as-Cesario for Sebastian, he goes for broke with an angry spurned-lover outburst rather than wounded hurt. Havens and Robertson share one of the funniest duel scenes in Shakespearean history, ending up in a splits-off in their attempts to keep from actually striking one another. Robertson’s Sir Andrew is a simpering, hysterical delight — a dissolute dandy who talks a big game but can barely pay his bar tab, the perfect foil for Sexton’s blustery Sir Toby.
A few deliberately restrained performances provide contrast. Brian Hinds as Malvolio, Olivia’s priggish servant, can bring down the house with a slight twitch of his mouth, and when he falls victim to a plot by Sirs Toby and Andrew and servants Fabian (Tom Schulz, who had several hilarious moments himself) and Maria (the on-point Jennifer Pennington), he remains a model of restraint, though just barely, just barely. Tad Chitwood portrayed Feste, Olivia’s knowing jester, with a bit too much reserve on opening night, holding back on his musical numbers throughout the play and downplaying his fooling in the first act.
But “Twelfth Night” really belongs to Viola, the lone voice of sanity in Illyria. Havens is plucky but humane, and though Viola is often bewildered by her surroundings, she’s in charge of her own story from start to finish. Havens’ best scenes, apart from the abovementioned duel with Robertson, are with Dizdarevic — the two share a rollicking chemistry that transcends the hidden identity shenanigans. The Lord of Misrule would approve.