Centerstage Twelfth Night: A fitfully funny farce

William Connell and Caroline Hewitt in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

Classic plays have long been used for frolicsome, outrageous farces.  Comedies work especially well when the setting is familiar and the entire cast is up to the task.  If not, what emerges may be an enjoyable but somewhat uneven show.  This is the case with William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the current production at Centerstage.

Directed by Centerstage Assistant Artistic Director Gavin Witt, Twelfth Night is a comedy centered around the confusion created by shipwrecked twins; each of whom presumes the other has perished at sea.  To gain employment, the girl (Viola) disguises herself as a young man and goes to work for a lovesick nobleman (Orsino).  Viola (who now calls herself Cesario) falls for Orsino, but delivers a declaration of love from Orsino to a recalcitrant woman named Olivia.  Olivia remains unimpressed with Orsino but is taken with Cesario, whose sexual smokescreen makes for a hopeless love triangle.

Buddy Haardt and Vanessa Wasche share a torrid moment (Richard Anderson)
Buddy Haardt and Vanessa Wasche share a torrid moment. (Richard Anderson)

Meanwhile, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Sir Toby and his drinking buddy Andrew conspire with house maid Maria to get even with a sullen steward named Malvolio by convincing him that Olivia is really in love with the sour puss.  Enter twin brother Sebastian, who the lusting Olivia believes to be Cesario and, well, you get the picture.  It’s a mad  mix-up of mischief and mistaken identity; one of Shakespeare’s finest fables.

Witt places the action of Shakespeare’s late sixteenth century composition in a Croatian coastal city circa 1938.  This mythical Illyria makes a marvelous backdrop for the screwball antics at hand.  The cast is energetic, and for the most part they do very well, though the start of the second act was noticeably belabored.  Hopefully, as the show continues its run, the pacing of that part will pick up a bit.  It would also be nice to see the cast play much broader in the screwball sense.  It’s 1938 – think Carole Lombard and Cary Grant.  Aside from that, the one real mystery in this production is the casting of Linda Kimbrough as the merry, musical fool Feste.

Kimbrough is an accomplished actress, but her delivery was stilted, annoyingly harsh, and out of step with the rest of the cast.  Worse, for a part which requires a lyrical voice, Ms. Kimbrough clearly cannot sing.  Her closing soliloquy, delivered like a smokey Julie London number, was ill advised at best.

On the positive side, the remainder of the cast did a nice job bringing the Bard’s crazy characters to life.

As the shipwrecked twins, Viola and Sebastian, Caroline Hewitt and Buddy Haardt made a very engaging pair.  Hewittt was especially endearing while delivering Orsino’s message of love to the stand-offish Olivia.

Brian Reddy and Richard Hollis as two inebriated gentlemen.
Brian Reddy and Richard Hollis as two inebriated gentlemen. (Richard Anderson)

Brian Reddy was a hoot as the shaky schicker Sir Toby.  His equally inebriated (and entertaining) friend Andrew was played by Richard Hollis.  Playing drunk and bombastic is a lot harder than one might imagine and Reddy and Hollis were thankfully up to the task.

William Connell gave Orsino a certain clueless chivalry.  Julie-Ann Elliott made the conniving Maria a pleasure to watch.  And Vanessa Wasche (Olivia) pulled double duty as both a  wonderfully wanton woman and as an elegant model, ala Myrna Loy, for a series of breathtaking gowns.

Allen McCullough almost steals the show as the stocking-clad Malvolio  Jon Hudson Odom (Antonio) and Ryan McCurdy (Valentine, et al) provide perfect foils in smaller, but no less important, parts.

On the creative side, Joshua Epstein’s Scenic & Lighting Design simply captures a delightfully airy Art Deco feel, while Music Supervisor Ryan McCurdy and Sound/Composer Designer Palmer Hefferan create a pleasant aural ambiance.  And Steven Satta staged a very funny fencing scene.  But the real stars here are Costume Designer David Burdick and Hair and Wig Designer Linda Cavell.  The duo of Cavell and Burdick had the cast evoking the glamorous days of MGM; not only with the women’s gowns but also with the razor sharp threads of Orsino and Andrew.

Twelfth Night does have its problems but is otherwise a fairly well-acted show and a beautifully staged production.  As such it is recommended.

Centerstage’s production of Twelfth Night runs now – April 6.  Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission. NOTE: This production includes the use of tobacco-free herbal cigarettes. Please let the House Manager know if you are smoke sensitive.  Centerstage is located at 700 N. Calvert St. in Baltimore, Maryland.  Tickets and other information may found by visiting Centerstage online.

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Prior to the show on Wednesday night, Centerstage Creative Director Kwame Kwei-Armah announced the shows for the upcoming season. Highlights include a new revival of Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning drama, Amadeus (starring Baltimore favorite Bruce Nelson); Kemp Powers’ critically acclaimed new play One Night in Miami…; and a one-of-a-kind festival celebrating the work of American playwright Amy Herzog.

Amadeus opens the 2014/15 season at Centerstage.
Amadeus opens the 2014/15 season at Centerstage.

Centerstage will also mount a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, and offer the beloved It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play for the holiday season.

Noting the diverse nature of the announced slate, Kwei-Armah said, “We had an amazing year last year; from our acclaimed Raisin Cycle to A Civil War Christmas.  It’s about access.  We want everyone in our community to know that there is something here for them.”

More information about the Centerstage’s exciting upcoming season may be found by visiting the company online.