Merry Mayhem

Live Theatre Workshop's stripped-down production of 'Twelfth Night' lustily emphasizes the play's frivolity.

To find Shakespeare's coastal dukedom of Illyria, don't waste your time with maps. Illyria is located on the calendar, at the far end of Epiphany, the festive Christmas season. Epiphany is a dozen days of party time, and Illyria is an upside-down land of practical jokes and impractical love, disguise and mistaken identity, and lost reason and merry mayhem. It all comes to a head on Twelfth Night, a last orgy of revelry and madness before normal life resumes.

Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night doesn't actually take place during the twelve days of Christmas--its action seems to stretch over a good three months--but it evokes the Medieval atmosphere of Epiphany with its happy revolt against sense and propriety. Live Theatre Workshop's current, stripped-down production lustily emphasizes the play's frivolity; it's so much fun that you can easily forgive the company for dancing away from the darker corners of the play's finale.

Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Each believes the other drowned, and it's chiefly Viola's fortunes we follow through the play. Viola disguises herself as a boy ("eunuch" is Shakespeare's precise term, although I don't recall hearing that word on stage last week) and enters the service of Illyria's Duke Orsino. The latter is nursing a hopeless passion for Olivia, a rich countess in perpetual mourning for her dead brother; with the willing assistance of her humorless steward Malvolio, she tries to force her entire household to share her grief, and rebuffs Orsino's advances.

Olivia is fragile enough, though, to fall for the disguised Viola at first sight. Viola, meanwhile, is smitten with Orsino. As if this weren't complicated enough, Olivia's reprobate uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and his fun-loving circle conspire to discredit their nemesis Malvolio by convincing him that he is the true object of Olivia's secret affection.

Director Bruce Bieszki does a fine job of differentiating the tones of Shakespeare's main plot (the Viola-Olivia-Orsino comedy of errors) and the subplot (the low comedy of Sir Toby's machinations).

The smitten Orsino, played with a wonderful, natural feel for the language by Richard Ivey, is preoccupied and obtuse, but never a ridiculous figure. Dana Armstrong's elegant Olivia seems a basically sensible woman thrown a bit off balance first by death and then by infatuation. Maryann Green's Viola, unfortunately, isn't entirely sympathetic; from the very beginning she seems too cunning and self-centered, tending to treat her lines as interior monologue rather than fully interacting with the other characters.

The other gaggle of players provides absolute lunacy, most especially in Jeremy Thompson's overripe performance as Malvolio. Merely his swishy, puckered first entrance is enough to stop the show. Equally scene-stealing is the Sir Toby of James Mitchell Gooden, as usual playing an endearing scoundrel with flair; Falstaff beckons. Koryie Harvey makes a delightful LTW debut as co-conspirator Maria, as does Richard Alpert as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby's partner in cups.

This production cuts and rearranges some scenes without exposing any seams, and offers the versatile Linda Andresano as a "Host" figure, who handles all the bit parts. The only loss here is in diminishing the importance of Feste, the astute fool.

What is missed is a sense that in the very last act, Shakespeare's revels now are ended. Malvolio's vow of vengeance is offered only in jest, and the physical assaults and threats of execution lack any sharp edge. Here Twelfth Night departs the outskirts of Epiphanic partytown Illyria, and the Lenten lands of Shakespeare's late romances lie just at the horizon. Yet Bieszki and the cast maintain a light touch to the very conclusion. All the characters remain on stage through the last scene, which is actually an improvement on Shakespeare, who abandons Sir Toby and company.

You can grouse about a production that ignores the metaphorical "the party's over" implications of the title, but Shakespeare gave this, alone among his plays, an alternate title: What You Will. So LTW takes old Will up on one of his punning implications and goes its own way, presenting a feel-good show that, like Olivia's relatives and hangers-on, laughs off our stern judgments.