Saturday, July 12, 2014

Twelfth Night, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Anand Nagraj as Duke Orsino and Tess Burgler as Viola/Cesario)

Laughs abound in this rowdy production of Shakespeare’s boffo comedy involving crossdressing, practical jokes, mistaken identities, failed courtships, and an uptight prig who gets his comeuppance.

In short, this one is engineered as a crowd pleaser, and that it does, featuring a juicy turn by Geoff Knox as the pompous Malvolio. But this time, the uber-talented OSF company comes perilously close to crossing the line between audience engagement and audience pandering.

Siblings Sebastian and Viola are in a shipwreck, Viola thinking her brother perished. So she decides to disguise herself as Cesario and work as a manservant of Duke Orsino, who is hot to romance Countess Olivia (the elegant yet amusing Lara Knox). But when he gives his mash notes to Cesario, to deliver to Olivia, Olivia tosses aside the Duke’s messages and falls for Cesario instead.

Of course, further complications arise as Olivia’s cousin Sir Toby Belch—in cahoots with Olivia’s clever assistant Maria and the fool Feste--carouses while plotting various pranks: One on the dim-witted Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another of Olivia’s suitors, and a second on the put-upon Malvolio.

You know the rest, including the reappearance of Sebastian (Kevin Glass). And if you don’t, it really doesn’t matter since Will’s convoluted plot lines eventually work themselves out pretty clearly amid much merriment and song.

The performances range from workmanlike to wonderful. As Duke Orsino, Anand Nagraj uses his mellifluous voice to fine effect. Also excellent are Tess Burgler as Viola/Cesario and Holly Humes as Maria.

OSF is known for their remarkable audience contact, often nailing specific patrons with a fixed gaze while addressing their lines to them. This often works splendidly well, creating the kind of intimate experience one imagines the original productions in Shakespeare’s day might have had.

But there’s a tendency to get carried away with this approach, leaning too hard on the audience for reactions and thereby swerving away too much from the words and action. That is the moment when engagement becomes pandering, and it happens now and then with Geoff Knox, funny though he is, and with Joe Pine’s spirited Feste.

Two key roles don’t quite contribute their full complement of comedy. While Derrick Winger’s Sir Belch and Jason Leupold’s Sir Aguecheek generate some chuckles, neither manages to craft the kind of full-bodied comic character that would make for a truly memorable Night. Winger is kind of a one-note inebriate and Leupold a bit too bashful to facially and physically explore Aguecheek’s profound intellectual dysfunction.

Still, there’s more than enough humor in this glorious script to make up for small quibbles. And a splendid pre-curtain “greenshow” is worth the price of admission by itself, highlighted by a priceless ode to iambic pentameter led by the effusive Pine (where else can you go to see that!).

And it’s all performed outdoors, by the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens lagoon. Bullfrog serenades are provided at no extra charge.

Twelfth Night
Through July 20, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761.

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