By Geary Danihy
There’s a very small, magical country nested in the heart of New Canaan. You won’t see it during the day, but at night if you make your way to Irwin Park, this delightful country known as Illyria will slowly manifest itself and, like all magical countries, will both mesmerize and delight you.
Illyria, of course, is the setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, what some critics have called the Bard’s most musical of plays, and director Allegra Libonati (who also did the adaptation) is certainly aware of that, for she has staged the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of this tale of disguise, deception and love at cross-purposes with a conductor’s sensitive ear for the “symphonic” flow of the scenes.
From the play’s opening lines, when Duke Orsino (Andrew Schwartz) tells his court musician that “If music be the food of love, play on,” to the closing, high-spirited song – “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain” – sung by the entire cast, there is a distinct lyrical nature to the goings-on in Illyria.
The plot, in summary, is quite simple: Viola (Lindsay Rae Taylor) and Sebastian (Christian Libonati), identical twins, are separated during a storm at sea and each believes the other has drowned. Both wash up on the shores of Illyria, whereupon Viola disguises herself as a man, Caesario, to serve the Duke, with whom she quickly falls in love. The Duke is, however, smitten with Olivia (Dina Ann Comolli) and sends his newfound manservant to plead his case. Olivia promptly falls in love with Caesario, much to the consternation of her cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Brian Silliman), who is pushing for his friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Michael Chmiel), to win Olivia’s hand. Sebastian soon shows up, having been rescued by Antonio (Omen Sade), to complicate matters until all is happily resolved.
Twins and mistaken identity are plot devices that Shakespeare used with great frequency, often involving servants in the confusion. In the case of Twelfth Night, which Allegra Libonati has chosen to set in the 1920s, he created one of his most famous comic characters in the form of Malvolio (Richard Sheridan Willis), Olivia’s pompous servant whom Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Olivia’s maidservant Maria (Rachel Benbow Murdy) trick into believing has captured the heart of his mistress.
Seeing any production of the play, it is Malvolio most will remember, and given Willis’s inspired performance it is easy to see why. Reed-thin, Willis, looking like a B-movie SS man, with his hair slicked back and wearing wire glasses, is so tightly wound he all but resonates and his speech is so-clipped it’s as if his teeth are razors slicing away any extraneous syllables. His character’s pretentiousness is a delight to watch, all the more so since it heightens his comeuppance when he appears in yellow hose and cross-garters, believing that such garb will delight his mistress. He imagines how, having wed Olivia, he will rule the roost, donning outrageous sunglasses and posing beneath a beach umbrella like some drag-queen interpretation of Tallulah Bankhead. It is high farce and just the sort of thing that would have pleased the “groundlings” who in Shakespeare’s day paid a penny to stand in the pit of the Globe Theater, chewing on hazelnuts and oranges and demanding to be entertained.
Willis’s excellent work is matched by that of a cast that is, across the board, absolutely superb. There is just so much good work going on up there (or down there) on the stage it’s difficult sometimes to know where to look.
There’s a certain impish quality to Taylor that works well for her in her transformation into Caesario. An accomplished Shakespearean actress who delivers her lines with a full range of emotion and depth (no classroom, sing-song here), her face is so expressive that a look or a smile conveys full pages of text. Equally expressive is Comolli’s Olivia – her eyes dart left and right as she plots to win Caesario’s love and her face literally lights up when she is delighted.
Silliman and Chmiel play exceedingly well together as the libidinous Belch and the somewhat less then knightly Aguecheek – Silliman larger than life and full of bombast; Chmiel alternatively fawning and fatuous. Their scenes often devolve into delicious farce, with the two evoking no less than Laurel and Hardy as Silliman suggests another debauch or eggs Chmiel into challenging his rival and Chmiel eagerly goes along.
Ryan does a very engaging turn as the clown, working the audience whenever he can and delivering his lines, both wise and foolish, with brio. Equally assured is Murdy as the somewhat earthy Maria who is fully capable of holding her own against Silliman’s booming Sir Toby.
The setting for all of these goings on has a Caribbean flavor to it, with water playing a central part in Patrick Lynch’s open set, for early in the first act two boards are lifted up from stage center to reveal a square pool that will serve, at various times, as the sea, a spa and a dungeon. Many of the cast members are damp to sodden in many scenes, which makes for some slippery going on the rest of the stage. It’s wiped down at intermission but soon becomes splattered again – a surface especially treacherous for the ladies in high heels. It’s a wonder some of the cast members didn’t go sliding off into the audience.
It’s rare to find an ensemble doing Shakespeare that doesn’t have some of its members delivering their lines as if they are in high school English class. This does not occur with this group of actors, all of whom fully invest their characters with believable humanity while speaking their lines as if over 500 years does not separate their penning and their delivery. In essence, it’s Shakespeare on a very high and exceedingly enjoyable level, and it would serve thee well to hie thyself to the woods of Irwin Park to partake of the festivities. Thou shalt not be disappointed.
Twelfth Night runs through Saturday, July 12. For tickets or more information call 966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org.
This review originally ran in the New Canaan News Review.