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The Barter Blog

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is a Delicious Dose of Spring Fever

April 14, 2019

Review by Bonny Gable
April 14, 2019

Spring naturally awakens a sense of celebration — of love, fertility, and new beginnings. It also inspires gaiety, frivolity, and mischievous pranks. All of this is replete in Barter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, a Shakespearean rom com where the boys get the girls and the villain gets his comeuppance. When the power of desire provokes foolishness in ambitious lovers we are allowed to enjoy the hilarious outcome. Mistaken identities and misplaced affections produce a series of madcap adventures as the lovers scramble about in a mire of misdirected amorous desires. But just as the chaotic entanglements reach a tumultuous pinnacle, they finally find their footing. We all rejoice as love matches are sealed and snapped neatly into place like pieces of a romantic jigsaw puzzle.

Much like the spring month of March often does, the play comes in like a lion before it goes out like a lamb. The shipwreck scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest plays a cameo role to launch the story with a bang. From this storm emerges the first complication: the separation of Viola from her twin brother, Sebastian, which supplies much of the confusion to come. Viola has landed on the shore of Illyria and disguises herself as a boy called Cesario in order to serve the handsome Duke Orsino. Viola falls in love with the duke, but, alas, the countess Olivia is the object of his desire and he instructs Cesario to woo her into returning his affection. However, Olivia soundly rejects Orsino and instead is instantly smitten with the fetching young “lad” Cesario. The result is a most intriguing love triangle, made all the more confusing when Sebastian appears and he and Cesario are constantly mistaken for one another.

To further complicate matters, the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek also pursues Olivia, egged on by her scheming uncle, Sir Toby Belch. But these efforts are sidelined when the opportunity to sabotage the insufferably pompous butler, Malvolio, proves irresistible. Olivia’s feisty maid, Maria, concocts an elaborate plan to make a complete fool of Malvolio, with Toby, Andrew and the clever court jester, Feste serving as her eager accomplices.

Ultimately everyone is confused about who is vying for whom as misplaced jealousies, accusations, false imprisonments and impotent swordplay create a cacophony of comic scenes in rapid succession.

Barter is so fortunate to have Director Katy Brown at the helm of this production. Not only is Ms. Brown knowledgeable in all things Shakespeare, she has a special knack for drawing out the best in her cast, guiding them to completely andphysically embody their characters. Each actor brings a uniquely tailored vitality to his or her roles, and we are swept up in the delicious energy of the entire ensemble.

Sarah Van Deusen gives an outstanding performance as Viola and the pretend Cesario. It cannot be easy to play a character within a character, but Van Deusen does it with intelligence and sincerity. I hope to see more of this talented young actress on Barter’s stage. Tricia Matthews is captivating as well a highly entertaining as the lovelorn Olivia. She becomes as giddy as a teenage girl when giving full-blown energy to her hormone driven infatuation with Cesario, which is hilarious to behold in a highborn countess. And as a fitting counterpart to her mistress, Mary Lucy Bivins brings to life her earthy but high-spirited maid, Maria. Bivins’ talent for timing and a comic turn of phrase keeps mischief ablaze behind Olivia’s back.

Michael Poisson is in his element as Sir Toby, a lovable but incorrigible scamp who’s always up for adventure and never at a loss for a place to stash his booze. Sean Maximo Campos again proves his amazing versatility as the prissy but gullible Sir Andrew. His facial expressions and outrageous physical maneuvers produce daring gestures from Andrew that consistently surprise us. And proffering abundant charisma and wit is Nicholas Piper in his splendid portrayal of Feste. Piper also composed lively original music, which he plays and sings with boundless gusto. These three form an affable but rascally trio whose antics deliver an exhilarating comedic force.

Justin Tyler Lewis as Malvolio supplies an utterly perfect conceit and condescending manner that turns him into a buffoon that we love to hate but find hysterically funny. Yet Lewis effortlessly transforms into the debonair Sebastian in the blink of an eye. Samuel Floyd also shows fine range with his portrayal of Orsino, the elegant if misguided Duke of Illyria. He is as graceful and imperious when issuing commands as he is laughable and entertaining when desperately emoting his love for Olivia.

Lee Alexander Martin’s costume designs in late 19th century style capture the romantic mood and signal each character’s temperament. Olivia’s black coat of mourning barely conceals a bright satin dress with red-ruffle trim that points to her true inner passion. Andrew is a dandy indeed in his soft gray suit and foppish accouterments, complete with matching teddy bear that peeks out from his carpetbag. A black pinstripe butler’s livery and prim round glasses reveal Malvolio’s stiffly staid persona, but his later switch to short pants to reveal the ridiculous yellow argyle stockings and black garters of his seduction efforts is pure genius.

Set Designer Hana Lee has created a dreamy world for this play, with storm-tossed ship’s sails that magically disappear to reveal an elaborate garden of shapely trellises draped with copious spring flowers. Bringing the story out into the open air adds an element of irony to the characters’ failure to see their situations clearly.

After a hard, cold winter, who can resist the welcome relief of spring? The fresh, warm air can make us fools for love, and a story of zany love adventures will liftyour spirits out of the winter doldrums. As Maria said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Twelfth Night experiences all three, so come taste the greatness.
Twelfth Night runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA through May 4.

Bonny Gable is a freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.