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A few flaws mar Bard's playful 'Twelfth Night'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Misguided steward Malvolio (Nick Sandys) unsuccessfully attempts to woo the Countess Olivia (Melanie Keller) in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

 

Disguised as a boy named Cesario, Viola (Minita Gandhi) pines for Prince Orsino (Anish Jethmalani) in "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare's comedy about identity and unrequited love running through Aug. 8 at First Folio Theatre.

 

In defiance of the puritanical Malvolio, Sir Toby (Donald Brearley, left), Feste (Craig Spidle), Maria (Mouzam Makkar) and Sir Andrew (Nick Maroon) continue carousing late into the night in First Folio Theatre's "Twelfth Night."

 

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Published: 7/16/2010 12:01 AM

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"Twelfth Night"

★★½

Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook. (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org

Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; through Aug. 8

Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $28. $23

Parking: Free lot adjacent to the grounds

Rating: For most ages

Typically, a director sets a Shakespeare play in an alternate era to make a social or political statement. Cases in point: Robert Falls' unrelentingly violent 2006 production of "King Lear," set in the 1990s during the disintegration of the Balkans, and Des McAnuff's eye-opening "Macbeth," from the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, set during the mid-1950s in an African nation ripped apart by civil war.

Director Michael Goldberg locates First Folio Theatre's production of "Twelfth Night" in 19th century colonial India, lending an exotic touch to the sparkling comedy about identity and unrequited love. It's a pretty, pleasant production and the credit rests in part with Goldberg and First Folio's talented artistic team. That includes Jeff Award-winner Henry Marsh who composed the original score.

Setting the play in India, however, suggests a commentary on race and culture in the offing, but Goldberg fails to deliver. No such tension exists here. The Indian aristocrats get along famously with the British colonials, the one exception being the puritanical Malvolio (the terrific Nick Sandys, as a perfect sourpuss), whose ambition exceeds his station. And there the issue has to do with class, not race.

In fact, Goldberg casts Olivia (Melanie Keller) as an upper-crust Brit who employs British as well as Indian servants, suggesting no racial bias on her part. And as the play progresses, love - for Olivia - proves colorblind as well.

That said, the setting does showcase the most ethnically diverse cast I've seen on this Oak Brook stage, as well as Elsa Hiltner's comely period costumes.

Goldberg maintains a merry tone throughout the comedy that begins with a tragedy. A storm - simply but effectively evoked by Goldberg - destroys a ship, separating twins Viola (the winsome Minita Gandhi) and Sebastian (Behzad Dabu). Viola is stranded on the shore of Illyria, a province presided over by the lovesick Prince Orsino (Anish Jethmalani, whose self aware performances suggests Orsino comprehends as well as anyone his overly dramatic response to unrequited love).

Disguising herself as a boy and re-christening herself Cesario, Viola makes her way to Orsino's court where she finds the prince mooning over Countess Olivia, who has forsworn all men following the recent death of her beloved brother. Orsino sends Cesario/Viola as his emissary to Olivia, who - believing Cesario to be a man - promptly falls in love with him.

Meanwhile, Olivia's cousin - the perpetually pickled Sir Toby (Donald Brearley) - and his boozy pals conspire to humiliate the despised, disapproving Malvolio by tricking him into believing Olivia is in love with him.

The strongest performances come from the supporting cast, beginning with Sandys' ill-used Malvolio - his face arranged in a perpetual grimace - and including Brearley's bawdy Toby, Nick Maroon's nifty comic turn as Toby's dimwitted friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Craig Sidle's unusually reserved take on Feste, the court fool whose wisdom surpasses everyone else's.

Downplaying the play's homoerotic subtext, Goldberg highlights its playfulness to fine effect with a farcical swordfight and clever mini-chase. And it all concludes with a rousing, Bollywood-inspired coda.

Fun as it was to watch, I couldn't help thinking, that for all the promise of Goldberg's exotic locale, the choice ultimately amounted to a curtain call punchline.