Producing one of Shakespeare's comedies is no easy feat, but producing one well—on a limited budget no less—is an exponentially more difficult task. Yet that is exactly what Developing Arts has achieved with its presentation of Twelfth Night. Director Kelly Barrett does an excellent job of creating a coherent vision for this production—a crucial element in the success of any contemporary Shakespearean revival. The fantastical realm of Illyria, imagined here as the inside of a genie's bottle, is sumptuous with color and texture, and also alive with the bawdy humor that's too often glossed over in less astute productions. The company, directed by Barrett, does not take itself too seriously, sidestepping an all-too-common pitfall in presenting work by the Bard.
For the most part, the cast is terrific at playing the emotions in the verse, ensuring that audience members less familiar with the text will not only be able to follow the device-ridden plot but can enjoy it as well. Rebecca Nyahay charms as the lovelorn Viola, who disguises herself as a man, Cesario, in order to serve the object of her affection, Duke Orsino—played by a sincere if too youthful Mark Kinch. Nyahay radiates girlish excitement, breathing life into verse that's crucial to the exposition. Alternating between a natural femininity and her stylized mannerisms when in character as Cesario, she highlights the comedy inherent in the woman-in-disguise plot device.
Sri Gordon is beguiling as the haughty-turned-lusty Olivia, who spurns Orsino's romantic advances, becoming enamored instead with his messenger, Cesario (Viola in disguise), and, later, with Viola's brother, Sebastian—the endearingly earnest Nick Giello.
If Illyria is a genie's bottle, then Kristin Carter, as Feste, Olivia's clown, casts the spell. Barrett switches Feste's traditional gender and has her costumed as a genie, but she astutely directs Carter by accentuating the wisdom characteristic of a Shakespearean fool. Carter is at once shrewd, flirtatious, and innocently playful. Music features prominently in this comedy, and Carter—who provided the arrangements for her own numbers—is a treat to listen to.
As Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's inebriated, scheming uncle, Bob Manus plays a buffoon extraordinarily well, and Andrew D. Montgomery is a delight as the rich and foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby's friend, drinking companion, and witless trickery victim. Though the two are thoroughly enjoyable to watch, the dynamic between the characters would be better presented if Sir Toby's craftiness received slightly more emphasis, and if Sir Andrew was portrayed as a bit more self-important rather than utterly likable.
Wende O'Reilly is vivacious as Olivia's woman Maria, the mischievous mastermind of the plot to trick the steward Malvolio, played with appropriate, masterful pompousness by Hunter Tremayne. Gretchen Howe, as Olivia's servant Fabian, injects liveliness into scenes even with limited dialogue, and does a great job of delivering the explanatory monologue typical of concluding scenes in Shakespeare's comedies. Henri Douvry admirably and effectively performs double duty as a priest and as the sea captain who accompanies Viola.
Barrett's decision to cast two other roles irrespective of traditional gender may prove a slight distraction to those familiar with the play, but it's not enough to upset the magical world she and the cast have fashioned. Antonio, Sebastian's friend, is reimagined here as Antonia and portrayed with an elegance and deft command of language by Valerie Austin, although the recasting may call to mind a romantic intention not present in the text. Taniya Sen and Chris Gilmer fulfill the various supporting roles demanded by Shakespeare with quiet dignity, despite having Sen, a woman, portray Valentine, traditionally one of the gentlemen serving the Duke.
Barrett's genie's bottle concept is an apt choice in the confined space, and set designer Dave Smith economically brings the idea to life. He conjures exotic Middle Eastern locales, with jewel-toned fabrics used to cover the few set pieces, and an impromptu rug consisting of swatches of various textured fabrics. Costume designer Gemma Le contributes to the effect, utilizing rich color and a few well-chosen details (such as tasseled belts) to give the impression of decadence on a limited budget. Though the venue cannot claim versatility in lighting effects, a few small glass chandeliers add detail. The fights are well choreographed by Matt Klan, though at this particular performance it seemed the cast was still becoming comfortable with the production's physical demands.
Despite the aforementioned minor distractions and the limitations of the space, this clever reimagining of one of Shakespeare's most oft-performed comedies works well. Audiences expecting an evening of laughter will not be disappointed.