“Twelfth Night” is amongst Shakespeare’s most popular plays, in part because the story is so accessible, and the situations so universally funny. Typical of the Bard, humor and tragedy are never far from each other. A young woman, Viola, grieves for her twin brother Sebastian after surviving a shipwreck in which she believes he drowned. Cast ashore in a strange country, she disguises herself as a man, donning an outfit matching that of her brother, who soon shows up – surprise! – wearing the same thing.
They are now identical.
Viola, having taken the name Cesario, finds employment with the local Duke, whom she instantly falls for. The Duke’s in love with the wealthy Olivia, who’s mourning her own brother’s recent death, and swears she will never love any man, but changes her mind the first time she takes a look at Cesario, who of course is actually Viola.
Wacky subplots involve of Olivia’s drunken cousin Toby Belch and the clueless Sir Aguecheek, Olivia’s servants Maria and the self-righteous Malvolio, and a freelance jester-singer-trouble-maker named Feste – all of whose paths begin to cross Cesario’s in increasingly complicated, potentially life-threatening ways.
Meanwhile, believing his sister to have drowned, Sebatian can’t understand why everyone in this strange land seems to know him, some trying to kill him and others trying to take him to bed.
It’s great stuff, all served up with Shakespeare’s patented sense of poetry and escalating crisis.
What’s tricky about a play so well known and well loved is presenting it freshly. How do you bring something new to a show so thoroughly mined and milked that virtually everything findable in it has been found?
That’s the task set before director David Lear and the Shakespeare in the Cannery crew, the relatively new company that last weekend opened its sophomore season in the old cannery ruins in Railroad Square. With a uniformly talented cast, and a strong vision by Lear, this production manages to both hit the notes we love to hear in a staging of “Twelfth Night,” and somehow find a few more I, for one, have yet to have heard.
Without altering the text, Lear has found a way to balance the play’s extremes, making the comedy funnier by attending to the details of the drama. Certainly, Lear – known for his innovations and sometimes unconventional approaches – does make a few changes, the most obvious being Feste the Jester, who here has been split into TWO, played as twins or clones or BFFs by Haley Bartels and Brandon Wilson, both delightful.
The other obvious splashes of invention are largely stylistic, from the tennis shoes worn by most of the cast to the black lipstick and corsets worn by several of the supporting ensemble.
As Viola and Sebastian, Kot Takahashi and Carmen Mitchell are not just wonderful at making you care about their plights, they look a lot more like each other than in most productions of “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen. I don’t have time to mention everyone by name, but special mention must go to April Krautner’s Olivia, arcing from gloom to puppy love with immense charm, Clark Miller and Brian Abbott as Toby and Aguecheek – managing to be silly and kind of sad at once – and the magnificent Alan Kaplan in the play’s trickiest role, that of Malvolio, who as the subject of one of literature’s most famous practical jokes, must transform from ridiculous to near-tragic, without altering the tone of the shenanigans all around him.
Congratulations to Lear and his entire team.
By finding the new in something so old, this is a Twelfth Night to celebrate and savor.
Twelfth Night runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm through August 15. Visit shakespeareinthecannery.com
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.