The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, August 15, 2008, Arts

Twelfth Night

Scottish Rite Theatre, through Aug. 30

Running time: 2 hr, 30 min

The outdoor summer Shakespeare festival has become a tradition for many theatregoers. The open sky, under which Shakespeare's plays were originally performed, gives audiences the chance to appreciate the enormity and grandeur of these works. The setting even has a little of the dorkish fun of a Ren fair. Plus, your dog gets to come, too.

Indoor, small-theatre Shakespeare opens another, more intimate window onto the plays. Seeing faces clearly allows more room for subtlety and quieter moments. Of course, it requires actors who really know their stuff.

That's exactly what Scottish Rite Theatre has in its favor in Twelfth Night, directed by Beth Burns. The entire cast uses the play's language nimbly, and its strength with the verse illuminates the story of this gender-bending romance, which, in the right hands, is hilarious.

The play begins with a shipwreck. (More plays should begin with shipwrecks!) Viola (Shannon Grounds), an innocent maid from a noble house, decides she's going to masquerade as a court eunuch in order to get by in the unfamiliar land of Illyria. When she confides this plan to the ship's captain (Justin Scalise, who also plays Feste the clown), he snorts with laughter. It's a signal that, thank goodness, we don't have to take things seriously, either.

Disguised as the gentleman Cesario, Viola works her way into the graces of lovesick Duke Orsino (Nathan Jerkins). He sends her as an emissary to woo the cold-hearted Olivia (Suzanne Balling). Catch: Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola, who in turn has a huge crush on Orsino. Then we learn that Viola's look-alike brother, Sebastian (Ryan Crowder), also made it to dry land, and nobody onstage can figure out how Cesario has managed to be in two places at once.

It is a delight to watch this collective scratching of the head. There are also sweeter moments when we see exactly why all of these characters fall in love. They're all lonely! They just want someone who understands, even in a fantasy land that semi-resembles Elizabethan England.

Twelfth Night also has a secondary plot, one that in less polished productions is a distraction, the part where you think about your grocery list for next week. Olivia's obsequious manservant, Malvolio (Robert Matney), has irritated the entire household to the breaking point, so the fools decide to play a prank on him wherein he is persuaded that Olivia now loves him. Scholars have long debated the classism implied in Malvolio's sad ending, but here it feels more like classmates sticking a whoopee cushion on the chair of the teacher that nobody likes.

The discomfort and bafflement of these lords, ladies, and fools is so much fun that the play's resolution is like the amusement park closing before you're ready to leave. It's also followed by a goofy dance number that's oddly reminiscent of Lord of the Dance but with ungainly costumes. After 2½ hours of watching actors with superb coordination and timing, it's strange to watch them stumble through the misplaced choreography.

Still, that's a good 2½ hours of well-executed comedy, with an excellent cast in all the right roles.

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