Luscious Love Stories in a Folksy Twelfth Night
(Note: Assuming that nobody needs a spoiler warning for a 400 year old play here…)
Fittingly enough for a show that is perhaps most famous for the dejected Duke Orsino’s request that his musicians play on in the name of love, Palm Beach Shakespeare’s production of Twelfth Night lavishly leans into love and music alike.
Playing Thursday through Sunday evenings until August 29th at the Commons Park Amphitheater in Royal Palm Beach, this iteration of the classic includes in its company a band of talented musicians who underscore the play’s action with original music composed by The Lubben Brothers, a local acoustic folk trio.
Thus, the Fool, played by a sharp-tongued but sweet-voiced Madison Fernandez, becomes a kind of bridge between these accompanists and the world of the play, periodically picking up her guitar to sing a soulful ditty as her character—and it’s she who kicks off the evening as narrator with an original introduction emphasizing the romantic entanglements at Twelfth Night’s center.
After an impressionistic opening meant to evoke the shipwreck that strands Viola (Sara Grant) in exotic Illyria, we’re set adrift into an ocean of chaos. To survive in her strange surroundings, Viola disguises herself as a boy called Cesario and becomes the servant of the brooding Duke Orsino (Pierre Tannous).
Though our gender-bending heroine quickly takes a shine to her new master, he is already under the spell of the beautiful Lady Olivia (Shalia Sakona), who has spurned him and in fact all of her suitors so that she can stay in solitary mourning. But when Orsino sends Viola-as-Cesario to woo his intended in his stead, Olivia swiftly becomes infatuated with her.
Given that there’s an actual plague on the loose these days, the fact that it’s only the “plague” of lovesickness that Viola and Orsino wax poetic about and that Olivia textually describes herself as having caught should come as comparatively light fare.
Yet despite whatever large-scale viral turmoil may arrive to overshadow our hearts’ smaller follies, I’d wager there’s few of us out there who can’t relate to the “green and yellow melancholy” that consumes us when the one person who you would do anything to lay hands on is also one who’s unquestioningly out of reach.
Sensitive performances from Tannous, Saksona, and Grant keep us engaged in the love triangle that lies at the heart of the story while delivering us plenty of laughs along the way, with Grant displaying a particular genius for comedy as she enthusiastically enumerates Viola’s paradox of a plight.
However, a closer look at some of the feverish and fleeting infatuations that spring up at the speed of light between Twelfth Night’s constellation of characters calls to mind the reason the show is such a fitting follow-up to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Palm Beach Shakespeare’s earlier-summer offering.
Viola suggests that Oliva would be better off loving a “dream” than herself given the false nature of the “Cesario” the lady falls for, while other elements of the text imply that Duke Orsino is more entranced by the idea of winning the gorgeous countess Olivia than he is by Olivia herself.
In contrast, Viola’s love for Orsino seems to grow naturally out of their actual interactions, adeptly paving the way for their endearing happy ending and the quick abandonment of his former object of affection at the play’s end—the ache for Lady Olivia that Orsino tries to assuage with his court’s songs is in the end no match for the intimate connection he builds with his steady servant.
A contrast between misguided unrequited “love” and actual feelings is also at the spine of Twelfth Night’s other major subplot, in which Olivia’s wine-sodden cousin Sir Toby Belch (Timothy Mark Davis) and his fellow degenerate Sir Andrew Aguecheek enlist the lively maid Maria (Casey Sacco) in a plot to humiliate the pompous steward Malvolio by tricking him into believing that Olivia will be receptive to his self-interested advances.
Though actress Elizabeth Price was originally slated to play the character as a genderbent Malvolia, the show’s director Seth Trucks had to step into the part at the last minute after opening night as Price bowed out due to a family emergency. It’s unclear whether Price will be back for any of Twelfth Night’s second weekend of performances, but Trucks’ hilarious embodiment of his holier-than-thou character means you’re likely to be satisfied either way.
While the extreme nature of the abasement Malvolio suffers sometimes stretches sympathy for his tormentors, the fact that he is obviously more invested in his fantasy of becoming a powerful “Count Malvolio” if he marries his mistress than in the feelings of that mistress herself means one could also think of it as justified comeuppance for his solipsism. This is especially true given such a funny and charismatic cast of tormentors, two of whom are shown to be in the midst of their own slow-burn love story.
Though Maria and Toby Belch’s eleventh hour coupling can sometimes seem to come out of left field or to be her more successful attempt at social climbing, this production makes it feel more like the natural culmination of the two characters’ chemistry throughout.
An interlude where Sacco’s Maria lends her strong singing voice to harmonize in one of the Fool’s bittersweet ballads also emphasizes the fact that she is carrying a torch for her rogueishly charming superior as opposed to chasing a higher societal status in seducing him, one of many moments in Twelfth Night where this production’s musical elements enhance the emotional texture of the script. As Belch, Davis also does a fine job of selling his character’s swaggering antics and constant intoxication— luckily, a food truck whiskey bar was on hand nearby if he’s so convincing that you feel like joining him by intermission!
Finally, though the thematic cohesion of Twelfth Night’s exploration of what makes love last is obviously undermined by the fact that Olivia and Viola’s long-lost twin Sebastian (Ricky Rivera) have only just met when mistaken identity misleads them into tying the knot, the two share such a charming repartee right off the bat that you still find yourself somehow rooting for the predestined pair. The arrival of this bewildered brother also paves the way for a touching reunion between the siblings and transforms the triangle into a satisfying square that leaves this stately show in ship-shape. Yet, as perhaps is also fitting when the world the audience is returning to is such an uncertain one, Malvolio’s incensed exit does leave us with a lasting reminder that all isn’t actually as idyllic in Illyria as it seems. Well, for any other loose ends out there…I guess there’s always the whiskey bar?