The Folger Theater is consistently successful because they never forget that Shakespeare is meant to be populist fun. When they were originally performed, the playwright had to appeal to the groundlings as well as the aristocracy. The Folger’s production of Twelfth Night continues this tradition: filled with music and broadly physical humor, director Robert Richmond keeps his audience laughing. There are problems with the text itself, yet the strength of the cast overshadows the play’s dubious, borderline creepy plot points.
The nautical-themed prologue is playful and unfolds without dialogue. A blue curtain hides the handsome stage, which is dominated by a large, broken stained glass window. Twins Viola (Emily Trask) and Sebastian (William Vaughan) show genuine tenderness as they dance their way through the shipwreck that sets the plot into motion. Not knowing the other is alive, they end up on the island of Illyria. Romantic shenanigans ensue: while dressed as a man and going by the name Cesario, Viola falls in love with Orsino (Michael Brusasco). Cesario presents a message on behalf of the Duke to Olivia (Rachel Pickup), and of course Olivia falls in love with him/her. Cesario is enough to knock Olivia out of mourning, which is unfortunate for Malvolio (Richard Sheridan Willis) since his pompous severity is what made him an ideal servant for Olivia.
Twelfth Night has more musical interludes than the typical Shakespeare play, and while most productions jettison them, Richmond puts them front and center. The costumes and set design are inspired by the early twentieth century, so music has this infectious, jazzy folksiness. Most of the songs are sung by Feste (Louis Butelli), the island’s requisite fool, and the strumming on his ukulele is welcome change from a character typically defined by verbal dexterity. Butelli is not the only character who performs an instrument on stage: in one scene, Trask plays the cello with further from accompaniment from Butelli, Antonio (Chris Genebach) on clarinet, and Valentine (Joshua Morgan) on piano. It’s the Shakespearean equivalent of a Beirut concert, except the actors must do so much more than play a little ditty.
Olivia has always been a problematic character – she falls in love with feminine “boy” and is later his satisfied by his twin – but Pickup pushes through thorny dialogue with on-stage vulnerability. She’s articulate and beautiful, so it is easy sympathize with her core while the method to her happiness does not hold up to scrutiny (Vaughan gets a big laugh with a physical gag when he can’t believe his luck with women). The Malvolio sub-plot is more successful because Willis turns him into an unforgivable ass. In the play’s infamous comic moment, he’s tricked by Toby (Craig Wallace), Andrew (James Konicek), and Olivia’s maid Maria (Tonya Beckman). Willis’ transformation from a fastidious jerk to a pathetic wretch is impressive: Willis has the audience in the palm of his hand when he attempts to smile, and only can create a goofy sneer.
Most characters in this play experience various stages of romantic free-fall, and the cast has no problem with the frequent plot twists. When she’s not playing the cello, Trask modulates her voice just enough so that she can sort of pass for a man, and her lines to Olivia about the nature of love are appropriately passionate. Wallace and Konicek have fun playing a drunk and a dandy, respectively, but Beckman is the funniest (as with many Shakespeare comedies, the characters that stand outside the fray are the ones who provide a hilarious running commentary). And although his role isn’t comic, Genebach adds emotional heft when a twin mix-up leads to a scene defined by his betrayal.
Richmond makes a few delightfully bold choices with his production, and they have nothing to do with Shakespeare. You may want to stick around during the intermission: the cast hangs out on stage, and they perform some silent vaudeville comedy. This material blurs the line between stage and audience, so when the second half begins with a Butelli belting out a classic song, the audience is quick to jump in for a sing-along. This is not what we normally expect from Shakespeare, which is precisely the point. Richmond and his cast do not use delicate white gloves when they’re handling the classic playwright; they know he wouldn’t take this material so seriously, either.