Southwest Shakespeare Company's “Twelfth Night” fizzes with flirty fun

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Performing Arts Issue: March 2016
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Twelfth NightSome characters are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. So it is with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a secondary character who’s red of face, dim of wit and lily of liver. But actor David Dickinson thrusts upon him such joyous jackassery he steals the show, and sets the tone for the production: gloriously over-the-top.

“Twelfth Night” – a Shakespearean “Yentl” that blurs the lines between feminine and masculine, friends and lovers, servitude and sex drive – is meant to be fun. It’s also one of the Bard’s most respected plays. And it treats us to some of his most famous lines: “If music be the food of love, play on,” “Some are born great...,” etc.

It begins, as “The Tempest” later would, with a tempest and a shipwreck. Viola is washed ashore, believing that her lookalike twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned. She finds herself on the isle of Illyria, which director David Vining fittingly imagines as an 1870s Santorini, set to a Zorba soundtrack.

To preserve her safety, Viola dresses as a man, calls herself Cesario, and becomes a servant to the local duke, Orsino. This hopeless romantic fancies himself lovesick over Olivia, the Helen of Illyria, whose face could launch a thousand relationships. (Aguecheek is one of many trying to board her boat.) Orsino bromances Cesario and commissions him to woo Olivia for him. Trouble is, Cesario/Viola falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia (a delightful Emily Mohney) falls in love with him/her.

Allison Sell plays Cesario/Viola with effortless charm, winning the audience with her comedic timing and confidential asides. She exudes frustrated passion so naturally you truly feel Viola loves Orsino. But you can’t understand why. As played by Jon Peacock, Orsino is more ironic than Byronic. Instead of wrestling with Orsino’s attraction to Cesario, the actor satirizes him, slackening the romantic and homoerotic tension.

Which is a shame, since sexual tension is the gin in Twelfth Night’s tonic. Still, plenty of fizzy fun remains. The actors are clearly having a ball during literature’s funniest duel and the energetic boozefests of Aguecheek and Toby Belch (Falstaff Lite).

Then there’s vain, puritanical steward Malvolio (imagine a character cocktail made of Jeeves, Oliver Cromwell and Kanye West), who is prompted by a practical joke to disastrously woo Olivia. Actor Clay Sanderson admirably takes him from sniffy prig to yellow-stockinged pelvic-thruster to pitiable prisoner. (In this character, Shakespeare takes revenge on the anti-entertainment Puritans, who, many years later, would demolish the Globe Theatre and literally cancel Christmas.)

The beauty of Shakespeare is that one can see the same play multiple times, and each production will be wildly different. Some emphasize romance. Some magnify the mood. This one cranks up the comedy. And in that regard, it achieves greatness.

"Twelfth Night"
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Mesa Arts Center,
Through April 9