Viola and Sebastian’s ship wrecks at the opening of Folger Theatre’s Twelfth Night in a spectacle brimming with theatricality and grace.
The brief scene sets us in the early 1900s – at the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, to be exact; and while the rest of the production may not hold up to its level of fury and mysticism, Twelfth Night is nonetheless a whimsical celebration of love told with musicality and charm.
Shakespeare’s beloved comedy of gender reversal, star-crossed love, and prideful folly fits almost seamlessly into the turn-of-the-century world, where roles are well-determined through both gender and class.
Director Robert Richmond chooses to use music as a framework, which strengthens the production’s setting and tone. Like a strong Shakespearean actor, the melodies interpret each line and relay its meaning to the audience much like a decoder.
The performance of the night belongs to Richard Sheridan Willis in the role of Malvolio. Willis’ prudish pompousness is both unnerving and loveable. He wins our affection and adoration even while making us root for his demise. His arc throughout the evening is one of the richest and deepest in the production, and would surely leave the non-purists in us wishing for a sequel.
As the desperate in life and determined in love Viola, Emily Trask uses well-timed physicality and a certain vocal purity to guide us through the story’s main love triangle. She plays opposite a talented Michael Brusasco, who interprets The Bard’s scripts with impeccable accuracy and skill.
Louis Butelli proves a great improvisor as the fool Feste. He gets big laughs along with James Konicek as Sir Andrew, whose manic anxiety is our delight.
Another standout is Chris Genebach who, in a minor role as Antonio, gives a small part big meaning by relaying each word with seemingly effortless clarity.
But while the cast does shine, the guiding force of the show is its music, arranged and directed by the James Franco of DC theater: Joshua Morgan. Morgan appears throughout the show in various hats – a perfect symbol as he takes a break from running his own theater company to accompany the production on multiple instruments and enter the story at times as an actor. With his capacity for new projects, I was pretty certain he’d jolt out of the building during intermission to perform a 10-minute, one-man version of A Chorus Line at the Capitol Lounge or something, but no: I come back in from intermission and there’s Morgan, soloing on piano in another damn hat.
(Intermission is, on that note, a real treat. Make it back in with some time to spare.)
By implementing classical and early 20th century tunes, the score opens audiences to a Shakespeare-infused world without a bar to entry. To heighten the effect, the performers show impressive vocal and instrumental skill throughout the piece. The result is sensory bliss and a strangely personal connection with the company of players.
Judging from this adaptation, music doth be the food of love, and Twelfth Night is a veritable feast.
Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night runs through June 9. Located at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. Closest Metro stop: Capitol South (Orange/Blue lines). For more information call 202-544-7077.