Arguably, even the slightest of William Shakespeare’s comedies outclasses all but a few comic works by other playwrights throughout history; but there are perhaps three or four of his plays that jostle one another for pride of place at the top of the heap. Of these, my inclination would be to give the crown of laurels to Much Ado about Nothing for the cleverness of its stinging repartee between Beatrice and Benedick. But plenty of other Shakespeare aficionados would place Twelfth Night at the absolute apex of the Bard’s great comedies, and they have ample reason to support that position.
Without question it’s a great play, laden with humorous innuendo even in its romantic main plot involving a shipwrecked young woman (Viola/Cesario) disguised as a male page, bearing besotted missives of love to a disdainful countess (Olivia) from the man with whom Viola herself has secretly fallen in love (Duke Orsino). Meanwhile, the subplot involving a cunning scheme by Olivia’s carousing uncle Sir Toby Belch, her hapless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek and her spirited servingwoman Maria to humiliate her arrogant steward Malvolio contains some of Shakespeare’s most inspired comedic set pieces. Add one of his wittiest clowns, Feste; mistaken-identity complications as Viola’s twin brother Sebastian shows up, unexpectedly not drowned; and a generous smattering throughout the play of songs, including “O Mistress Mine,” and you get an evening’s entertainment jam-packed with mirth.
It’s no wonder that Twelfth Night gets revived frequently; unlike, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve never heard anyone complain that it’s “overdone.” It’s a play that one can sit through a thousand times and still look forward to Malvolio showing up yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered and grinning like a madman after he finds Maria’s forged letter. Comic actors relish the role, and casting a proper Malvolio is essential to the success of any production of the work. Thus, I’m pleased to be able to report that, for the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival (WSF) production of Twelfth Night currently running at the Comeau Property, director Nicola Sheara has made an inspired choice in casting Michael Da Torre as the butt of Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s cruel-but-well-deserved practical joke. Da Torre’s rendition of the steward’s manic smiling routine is hilariously over-the-top; he’s one of the funniest Malvolios that I can recall (and having recently seen the great Stephen Fry in the role, that’s no slight praise).
Also outstanding in the cast, unsurprisingly, are WSF’s married mainstays, co-founders and co-directors, David Aston Reese as Feste and Elli Michaels as Maria. Eric Jagoda and Chris Bailey get drunk and provoke mischief together admirably as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Oliver Wyman as Orsino and Julie Szabo as Olivia are well-matched as ficklehearted aristocratic antagonists, if not ultimately as romantic partners. And Ella Cattabiani is a delight as Viola, veering easily from wistful longing for her employer to brisk, energetic execution of her assignments to cringing fearfulness when challenged to a duel by the equally craven Sir Andrew.
Special mention in this production is owed to the excellent arrangements of Feste’s many songs by the redoubtable Gilles Malkine, and also to the ingenious costumes by Tessa Keefe. Rather than try to replicate Elizabethan garb, she evokes the 1920s and ’30s by dressing Viola and Sebastian as upscale twin Charlie Chaplins in bowler hats, Duke Orsino with his hair slicked back like Jay Gatsby, Olivia in the bias-cut gown of one of Mae West’s silver-screen vamps, Malvolio in a Mafioso’s black suit, Feste in a vaudeville comedian’s baggy pants and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in summer suits and straw boaters like a couple of croquet-playing swells. In spite of the authentically Tudor-style stage that is now a permanent fixture at the Comeau Property, the Golden Age of Hollywood look complements the often-slapstick tone of the play very nicely.
The Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company’s summer Woodstock Shakespeare Festival productions are always presented free of charge, with no reservations necessary, although a donation of at least $5 upon entry is suggested. The actors don’t get paid, but production expenses must be covered somehow. Performances begin at 5 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through August 31 at the Comeau Property, located on Comeau Drive, accessible from Route 212 across from the old firehouse in downtown Woodstock. Come on out, bring a blanket or a lawn chair and a picnic and have a blast. For more information call (845) 247-4007 or visit www.birdonacliff.org.
Twelfth Night, Woodstock Shakespeare Festival, Bird-on-a-Cliff Theater Company, Fridays-Sundays through August 31, 5 p.m., $5 suggested donation, the Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive, Woodstock; (845) 247-4007, www.birdonacliff.org.