The twisted identities and raucous antics of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have delighted audiences for centuries—and a new production is showing why. Directed by Lynnea Benson, Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night offers an enjoyably accessible take on the Bard’s famed tale.
Twelfth Night, to refresh your memory, takes place in the country of Illyria, where Viola (Alyssa Diamond) is shipwrecked and assumes a male identity to find work as a servant under the powerful Count Orsino (Jonathan Reed Wexler). Orsino sends Viola (disguised as the male Cesario) to woo the countess Olivia (Karoline Patrick) on his behalf, but complications ensue when Olivia becomes enamored of Cesario—and Viola’s twin Sebastian (Kyle Primack) comes ashore. This adaptation subtly condenses Shakespeare’s text into a tight two-hour running time (including intermission), with scenes that keep the action moving at a pleasurably quick pace without sacrificing the plot.
Frog and Peach’s production brings out the lighthearted comedy that’s so essential to Twelfth Night’s success; the band of courtly misfits led by Olivia’s inebriated uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Kevin Hauver), infuses the production with a shot of raucous humor, and comic moments like the stern servant Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings are as delightful as ever. Taking a cue from the play’s opening command, “If music be the food of love, play on,” the production is also buoyed by original music composed by Ted Zurkowski, which is used both to enhance moments of revelry and score the contemplative songs of the fool Feste (Steve Mazzoccone). The production’s use of music helps to fill out this otherwise straightforward take on Shakespeare’s words, and it could have been deployed even more in transitional moments to break up the sometimes static parade of short spoken scenes.
Benson’s direction unknots the poetic tangles of Shakespeare’s verse to bring out the meaning of the text, making the action clear to those unfamiliar with Shakespearean language. (This is particularly true of flirtation scenes—when Sir Andrew Aguecheek asks Olivia’s servant Maria, “Do you think you have fools in hand?” and she responds, “Sir, I have you not by the hand,” for instance, a wandering hand makes the double meaning very clear.) The troupe’s acting also serves the Bard well, though performers’ more emotional portrayals at times come off as a bit overwrought.
Sir Toby’s gang and their boisterous humor are especially captivating; Jamar Brathwaite as the dimwitted Sir Andrew (“Many do call me fool,” he proclaims) particularly shines in an often-overshadowed role, and his fearfully attempted duel against Cesario is a highlight of the production. Richard James Porter’s take on Malvolio brings the necessary sense of gravitas and self-seriousness, though his humorous moments are at times slightly too understated. As the play's central heroine, Alyssa Diamond’s Viola/Cesario has an endearing, if sometimes overly emoted, sweetness; in addition to the aforementioned dueling scene, her speech when she passes along a message of Orsino’s love for Olivia (telling her, “Make me a willow cabin at your gate/And call upon my soul within the house”) is especially compelling.
Along with its bright performances, the production captures Illyria’s coastal lushness with its simple yet elegant design. Dennis Parichy’s tastefully bold lighting gives the stage a colorful, vibrant tinge, and Asa Benally’s set design, consisting of two tableaux of greenery, chairs and gilded antiques, is artfully arranged, evoking Illyria’s opulence and beach setting in a subtly effective way. Benally’s Bohemian-style costumes add to the production’s sense of whimsy with their bold patterns and flowing skirts, and the garments suggest a modern-day setting without the production needing to impose a framing device on the play.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s more oft-produced works, and theatergoers looking for a fresh take or defining performance won’t find that here. For those wanting to revisit the play—or discover Shakespeare’s verse for the first time—though, Frog and Peach’s brisk and non-intimidating interpretation offers a joyful window into how enjoyable the Bard can be.
Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night runs through March 17 at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture (18 Bleecker St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinee performances are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit sheencenter.org.