By Brooks Appelbaum
Remember Sir Andrew Aguecheek in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night?” Sir Toby Belch’s great friend and sidekick? One of the many who seek the hand of the beautiful Countess Olivia? No? Well, after you have seen Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production, running through December 13, you will never forget this character. As performed by the prodigiously talented Mark Blashford, Sir Andrew -- usually one of the second-tier buffoons in this complex story of mistaken identity and tangled love -- neatly steals the show.
Director Victor Maog wraps this Twelfth Night in a Christmas atmosphere and presents a version of the script that is as broadly played as possible. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s comedies, which interrupt romantic plots with those scenes of buffoonery that gave rise to the phrase comic relief, this production could use some relief from the relentless comedy. Blashford’s performance is all the more remarkable, then, because his Aguecheek, though incredibly funny, comes across as one of the most believable and even touching characters. A reed-like body topped by a mobile, sculpted face, Blashford adds a hint of fragility to his role, even as he performs astonishing physical feats. And just wait for the moment when he has a banjo in his hands: rarely has one of Shakespeare’s songs been more delightfully and hilariously re-imagined.
Of the other cast members, all but two are students in either the undergraduate or graduate theater programs, and they bring enormous energy and conviction to their roles. At times, Maog’s vision works against them, but they still perform with expert timing and warmth. Juliana Bearse is fine as Viola, the young woman washed ashore in Illyria who disguises herself as a boy, becomes page to the Duke Orsino, and promptly becomes involved in a knot of seemingly hopeless loves. Unfortunately, Maog hampers her performance with a Hitler-like mustache and an unnecessarily awkward interpretation of how a woman would move were she impersonating a young man. Viola fools everyone in the play, so the actress playing her must be convincing as a comely youth.
Darren Lee Brown makes a handsome Duke Orsino, though Maog fails to plumb the depths of the duke’s unrequited love for Countess Olivia. Madison Coppola conveys terrific authority when spurning Orsino’s pleas, and sparkles with wild abandon when she falls hard for his messenger, the disguised Viola.
As Olivia’s handmaiden, Maria, Arlene Bozich transcends her costume -- part trollop and part clown -- to create an assured, charismatic character. Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, one of two Equity actors in the company, inhabits the role of Malvolio, Olivia’s haughty steward, with exactly the right notes of ambition, absurdity, and finally, pained rage. His undoing provides some of the few realistic moments allowed in this headlong romp.
Richard Ruiz, also an Equity actor, has been directed to play Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s unapologetically inebriated uncle, as a conventional Shakespearean drunk: rotund in every part of his body and a perfect foil for the stork-like Andrew Aguecheek.
Brian Sullivan’s Antonio is both moving and consistently interesting to watch, and Jeff DeSisto is believably bewildered by good fortune as Sebastian. Finally, Kevin Hilversum plays Feste with unexpected delicacy and sly wit. His voice, too, is beautiful.
All the designers are also students, and they frame the production beautifully. The costumer (Tuoxi Wu) has made bold choices, most of which work well, especially in the cases of the mourning Olivia, draped in black lace; Malvolio; Sir Toby; Orsino; and Aguecheeck (with one maroon stocking down and one up, his costume winningly signals his scatterbrained state). Scenic Designer Brett Calvo has created a beautifully minimal and evocative set, and the lighting design (Justin Poruban) and sound design (Abigail Golec) contribute a sense of mystery and delicacy that modulate Maog’s waggish vision.
This certainly should not be the only Twelfth Night you see, but for a child, or a child-like spirit -- especially if some holiday nog accompanies the show -- this production has its pleasures. Mark Blashford’s Aguecheek alone is cause for a celebratory swig.
Twelfth Night runs through December 19. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.