(Left to right: Tess Burgler as Olivia, Kate Leigh Michalski as Maria/Feste and Hillary Wheelock as Viola)
If you’re fond of pranks and mistaken identities, then Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a veritable bonanza. What with one young woman disguised as a man so that her twin brother is mistaken for her by the countess who falls in love with her as a him, and a pompous prig scammed into dressing like a fool (for love), this comedy is a wonderful romp.
And in this version directed by Aaron D. Elersich, the emphasis is on having a good time with the Bard’s elegantly articulated script. Staged in Ensemble’s smaller performance space, as part of their TheaterCLE season, this truncated 12N offloads some wordy baggage and combines a couple characters to keep the whole affair under two hours.
But that’s time enough for plenty of fun to ensue. Viola and her twin bother Sebastian are shipwrecked, with Viola rescued and deciding to masquerade as a boy, Cesario, to protect herself. Soon, she lands a messenger boy gig with Duke Orsino (an upright Eric Fancher), who uses Cesario to send his love notes to countess Olivia. As Viola, Hillary Wheelock is pretty convincing in her adopted role as a young dude. And she’s a nice visual match with a bemused Trey Gilpin, whose Sebastian also shows up and is mistaken for Cesario by the love addled Olivia (a well-focused and ultimately gob-smacked Tess Burgler).
Olivia is attended by her steward Malvolio, a stiff moralist who harbors a passionate love for his employer. To pop his pretentious balloon, a couple local drunks—Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek—plot with Olivia’s scheming maid Maria to send him a fake love note from Olivia. It contains hints as to Olivia’s supposed fondness for styles of clothing and behavior she actually detests, sending Malvolio reeling off in entirely the wrong direction.
Robert Hawkes brings a nice sense of snarky, inebriated playfulness to Belch, along with a much-appreciated ability to throw away some laugh lines. As Aguecheek, Sean Seibert works hard, but often harder than he needs to. And Doug Kusak turns pomposity into buffoonery as Malvolio. In smaller roles, Zachary Olivos holds his own as Olivia's servant Fabian and Tim Young rushes a bit too fast through many of his lines as the sea captain Antonio.
Tying it all together is Kate Leigh Michalski in the combined role of Maria and the clown Feste, and she accompanies herself on guitar as she sings a couple of Will’s ditties, including the lovely finale “The Wind and the Rain.”
Done in modern dress, the fictional setting of “Illyria” seems much closer to the all-too-real Elyria in our neck of the woods. But this tidy version manages to capture some of the magic.
Through April 4 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-202-0938.