nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 20, 2005
In Peter Dobbins's blissfully smart new production of Twelfth Night, Viola and Sebastian are a pair of Cuban refugees who wash up, separately, on the shores of an island called Illyria, near the Florida Keys. Twins and best friends, the two are sadly sure that each has lost the other to the storm that wrecked their boat; but they're determined to press on as best they can. Viola, whom we meet first, disguises herself as a male, Cesario, and gets a job as an assistant to Orsino, Illyria's Governor. Orsino isn't governing very much at the moment, however; this moony young man is trying, unsuccessfully, to woo Olivia, a beautiful American heiress who lives on the island. But Olivia, having recently lost both her father and her brother, isn't much up for wooing at the moment.
But when Viola-as-Cesario comes calling, Olivia sits up and takes notice. Almost immediately, she falls for this plain-spoken youth whom she believes is a man. Viola, meanwhile, realizes that she is in love with her boss. "Fortune forbid," cries Viola famously, comprehending the quandary:
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a know for me t'untie.
Time does its bit, abetted by Sebastian's sudden arrival in Illyria; he has been rescued by a smuggler named Antonio who, though wanted in Illyria, agrees to help his young friend find his way there. Sebastian looks almost exactly like the disguised Viola, and so when Olivia lays eyes upon him, she thinks he's her beloved Cesario. Sebastian is confused, but not unwilling to accept her advances. Complications ensue.
Meanwhile, Olivia's uncle, a fun-loving rapscallion called Sir Toby Belch, is raising cain on his own, setting his rich but dopey acquaintance Sir Andrew Aguecheek on a number of expensive but futile errands (such as wooing Olivia), riling Olivia's stuffy estate manager Malvolio, and eventually conspiring with Olivia's personal assistant Maria to take revenge on that gentleman in a most nefarious scheme. And Feste, the pool boy who is apparently the only person who can make dour Olivia laugh these days, gets in on the fun as well. Complications multiply, and then, neatly, sort themselves out in time for a happy curtain.
If you're wondering why I'm going on about Twelfth Night as if it were something new and astonishing, well, it's because Dobbins and the folks at Storm Theatre have made it feel that way. Revivals of Shakespeare—especially the ones that try to graft some new time or place onto the presumably inaccessible original—can be tiresome, even deadly things. Not so this! Dobbins's translation of the characters from their fairy-tale sources to these very timely Western Hemisphere analogs is spectacularly apt: relationships and interactions that often seem murky or imprecise here feel entirely clear and comprehensible. The (never stated) reality of Viola and Sebastian's status as refugees informs and lends real weight to the otherwise lighthearted proceedings. And the energy and conviction of Dobbins's cast makes the familiar tale fresh and fascinating.
High spirits abound here. The comic characters—Sir Toby (Michael Daly), Sir Andrew (Matthew Simon), Maria (Heather Spore), Malvolio (Robin Haynes), and Feste (Greg Couba)—are played with genuine zest. Simon finds a wonderful joke in the script that has perhaps been waiting four hundred years to get unleashed, for example; and Daly, Spore, Haynes, and especially Couba all succeed in being not just funny but likable, and never cloying. The romantic characters, in the meantime—Orsino (Emmanuele Ancorini), Viola (Benita Robledo), Olivia (Julia Tobey), and Sebastian (Josh Vasquez)—convey both folly and ardor in equal helpings. Dobbins has inserted a couple of fantasy dance sequences (choreography by Enrique Crux De Jesus, lovely music by Skip Kennon) that give Robledo and Tobey a chance to show us what's inside their characters' heads and hearts—a nicely inspired addition.
Offering solid support are Mark Cajigao and Jamil Mena as Orsino's jaded policemen, Miguel Sierra as Olivia's pragmatic groundskeeper Fabian, and Jose Sanchez as a very earnest Antonio.
Todd Ivins has provided a beautiful unit set that conjures the subtropical languor of the play and this production's location of it; Michael Abrams's lighting, Scott O'Brien's sound, and Erin Murphy's lush costumes together evoke the place and mood prettily, and more extravagantly that you'd expect for a $19 off-off-Broadway show, to boot.
In every respect, the Storm's Twelfth Night is a success, rediscovering a classic play and inventing it anew. What a treat!