Austin Playhouse, through Sept. 17
Running time: 2 hrs
Of Shakespeare's later comedies, Twelfth Night seems the most accessible. The plot revolves around mistaken identity, the knavery of servants, madness, and a royal suitor hopelessly in love with a woman who rejects his romantic advances. A shipwreck lends a wayward surviving twin sister an opportunity to disguise herself as a man in Illyria. Thus, Viola becomes Cesario, accepting service to the Duke Orsino, with whom she promptly falls in love. Her feelings remain hidden and painful, however, as Cesario is sent to present numerous declarations of Orsino's love to the unimpressed Olivia, whose affection beams instead toward a reluctant Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia's house administrator Malvolio suffers much trickery at the hands of her mischievous uncle, Sir Toby. Feste, the foolish truth-sayer, moves in and out of the story, occasionally singing an appropriately descriptive tune. Reunions and weddings draw the comedy to a tidy close.
Onstage Theatre Company's production emphasizes dialogue and staging over production values. Director Rod Mechem, who's also responsible for the lighting and the modestly constructed and functional set, plays Sir Andrew and Antonio, making him a jack-of-all-trades. A no-frills entrance precedes Duke Orsino's familiar "If music be the food of love, play on." In the role of the duke, Marco Noyola lacks passion but tackles poetic text nicely. Alexandra Evans is charming as the likable Viola/Cesario and delivers sarcasm soundly during soupy serenades. Dawn Erin's Olivia is haughty and flirtatious, and her maidservant Maria, as played by Meggan De Gennaro, makes mischief appealing. Nikki Zook's clownish Feste (with spiked purple punk hair) is at her best when disguised as Sir Topas, exorcising imaginary demons from Malvolio. As that hapless steward, Michael Stuart offers splendid dryness and puritanical buffoonery. His welcome humor and believability highlight most of his scenes. David Meissner imbues Viola's lost twin brother, Sebastian, with a kind of lucky simplemindedness. And Charles P. Stites fittingly portrays Sir Toby as ribald and drunk, lovable and harmless.
In this kind of romantic comedy, a special cocktail of chemistry is needed among the ensemble and romantic pairs for the humor and wit to play smoothly and accurately. But here, Mechem's direction teeters between an excess of unsurprising gag stunts and peculiar blocking, and the frolicking gaiety generally gives way to choppier stage seas and constricted emotion. Overall, performances tend to wane and wax during crucial moments. It is obvious that all the actors are sincerely invested in their roles, but inconsistent choices, most likely the result of less-than-stern direction, hurt the production. If all the hard work they've invested in their performances could be pushed to the edge of theatrical intensity through total confidence and commitment slightly, not exponentially the show could meet its palpable potential. As chef Emeril would say, "Kick it up a notch."
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