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Twelfth Night begins with one of Shakespeare’s most memorable pronouncements: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Revelers attending Lantern Theatre Company’s feast of a production can rest assured that they will leave well fed.
Director Charles McMahon balances the ribald comedy, tender romance, and musical interludes with a unified vision. The action unfolds on James F. Pyne Jr.’s delightfully cluttered set, dotted with trinkets and tchotchkes that hint at elements of the plot. You’ll notice a toy ship, to represent the shipwreck that sets the story in motion, and a typewriter, which calls to mind the duplicitous letter that spells the servant Malvolio’s downfall.
There are other aspects of the scenic design that make less dramaturgical sense. (A trumpet? An old television and cordless phone from the 1990s?) But in the end, they contribute to the whimsical atmosphere that McMahon conjures, which suits the mashup of pageant, morality play, and tender love story at the heart of the script. Overthink it and you risk not having a good time.
Keeping up with the comedy
On paper, Twelfth Night requires concentration just to keep up. It’s one of those Shakespearean comedies where everyone is playing a trick on someone else; where half the characters are either cross-dressed or thought to be someone they’re not, intentionally or unintentionally; and where mistaken identity leads either to happiness or heartbreak. In practice, though, it’s a charming exploration of the heart’s superiority over the head in matters of love, and how setting aside preconceived notions can usher in total joyfulness.
Such is the case for the central quartet of lovers. Duke Orsino (Damon Bonetti) pines for the regal, unhappy Olivia (Melissa Rakiro), who flatly rejects his entreaties. Yet she takes an instant liking to his servant Cesario—who secretly pines for his master. Cesario, of course, is actually Viola (Joanna Liao), a stranded noblewoman disguising herself in the foreign kingdom of Illyria after the alleged death of her brother, Sebastian. (Shakespeare was an early pioneer of gender fuckery.) But when it turns out Sebastian is alive—and played here by the strapping and silly Tyler S. Elliott, all’s well that ends well.
Lovers, freeloaders, and the steward
The connections blossom organically throughout the course of the play. Liao communicates Viola’s lovesick pining for Orsino while also seeming believably boyish in her Cesario drag. Bonetti, cutting a matinee idol figure, is both vain and tender. Rakiro starts off a bit stiff in portraying Olivia’s deep mourning—like Viola, she also grieves a brother—but her performance warms as her attraction to Cesario gradually returns her to the world of the living.
As in other Shakespearean comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, the double romance at the center unfolds amid the jolly hijinks of a secondary cast of characters. Here, the servants and freeloading family members of Olivia’s house punctuate their drunken stupors by playing a mean trick on Olivia’s severe steward, Malvolio (David Ingram). I’ve rarely enjoyed the mischief as much as here, in the hands of Brian Anthony Wilson (the bilious Sir Toby Belch), J Hernandez (the dimwitted Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Lee Minora (the uproariously haughty lady’s maid Maria).
Ingram, long a master of the classics in Philadelphia, also brings a depth of humanity to Malvolio that wrests him from the realm of mere detestability. He might be pompous and misguided in his ambitions, sure, but you leave this staging with the feeling that he got a raw deal. His famous final line—“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”—sounds more resigned than chilling, a sigh rather than a threat.
Enjoying the excess
Marla Jurglanis’s costumes add definition to the characters, in addition to being totally eye-catching on their own. (My date and I spent a good part of the intermission discussing which of the coats we’d most like to pilfer.) Tydell Williams’s lighting design could be warm or harsh, depending on the tenor of a scene. Christopher Colucci supplied folksy tunes for the musical portions of the evening, performed jocundly by Charlie DelMarcelle as Feste the Fool.
Some blocking issues caused the actors to spend large portions of the performance with their backs to the audience in the center section of St. Stephen’s Theater, which is configured as a thrust stage for this production. It’s a problem that could be easily fixed by moving a bench that figures prominently in several scenes just a few yards farther upstage. Everyone in the auditorium should be able to see these fine actors’ faces as much as possible.
In a programming twist, the Wilma Theater is also preparing its own version of Twelfth Night, and by early June, both productions will run simultaneously for a few weeks. Shakespeare aficionados can and should compare and contrast. For this predicament, I will once again quote Duke Orsino: give me excess of it.
What, When, Where
Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon. Lantern Theatre Company. Through June 18, 2023, at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. $37-$42. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
The performance space and restrooms at St. Stephen’s Theater are accessible only by stairs.
Masks are required.
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