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Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ in High Park loaded with fast-paced fun (Includes first-hand account)

Alternating evenings this summer with King Lear during Shakespeare in High Park‘s thirty-fifth season, this Twelfth Night aims to please, setting the action at the free-swinging Hotel Illyria in the 1970s, complete with the funky tunes and the Herb Tarlek polyester suits. Director Tanja Jacobs really should have titled it Twelfth Night Fever; who knows why she picked the disco era as the setting for this Renaissance romp about mistaken identity and revenge, but it works surprisingly well. Even the gratuitous throwaway moments – characters calling each other “Daddy-O” and “Pretty Mama”, or an unexpected jazz-hands dance by a pair of bellboys – don’t seem out of place.
The high-spirited ensemble is only one of the attractions of this fast-paced screwball farce, which follows two shipwrecked twins, Viola (Amelia Sargisson) and Sebastian (Brett Dahl), who get separated and then mixed up in the unrequited-love story of Duke Orsino (Richard Lee), smitten with the mourning Countess Olivia (Naomi Wright). Viola disguises herself as a man and gets a bellhop job at the hotel under Orsino, who sends her to woo Olivia for him, but things go awry when Viola instantly falls in love with the Duke – and then Olivia gets the hots for her.
Subplot-wise, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (Jason Cadieux) and his drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Peter Fernandes) – reinvented here as groovy, hard-partying hipsters – plan a revenge scheme with hippie clown Feste (Jenni Burke) and hotel employees Maria (Hannah Wayne Philips) and Fabiana (Diane D’Aquila) to humiliate Olivia’s snobbish servant, Malvolio (Jacobs, temporarily replacing the ill Robert Persichini). These breakneck scenes exhibit such a wonderful chemistry between Cadieux, Fernandes, Burke, Wayne-Phillips and D’Aquila that you wish you were in on the plot too.
Nobody is slacking off in this cast. Jacobs pushes every actor to let loose and go the limit in terms of energy, and they all seem to be having so much fun that you can’t imagine the work and routine that must have gone into the rehearsals. But Sargisson’s performance is by far the most balanced: she has the right timing and physicality for the comedic scenes, yet she can also burst into tears in a snap, convincing you of Viola’s grief at her brother’s apparent loss – and at her inability to express her true feelings for Orsino. One of the best scenes has Lee and Sargisson partaking in a ballroom dance while chatting, and she takes the lead from him with utter joy and abandonment, revealing Viola’s feelings more sincerely than words could.

Also very strong, in a different way, is Wright’s horny Olivia, who can barely contain her infatuation with the cross-dressing Viola (and later, with Sebastian, who she believes is the same man). There’s a big laugh at Wright’s delivery of the line, “Most wonderful!” when she sees the reunited siblings together and gets double the pleasure. (A minor quibble: Sebastian should be wearing his bellhop coat and hat when Olivia meets him for the first time, to make her confusion of him with Viola more convincing.)
Even Jacobs’ own makeshift portrayal of Malvolio – despite her mostly reading off a script – is constantly watchable and funny. Her Edith Head hairdo and glasses and her pouty, self-righteous expressions are perfect for the character, as is the vanity she expresses when Malvolio discovers a forged love letter that’s ostensibly from Olivia. Not to diminish Persichini in any way, but I would have loved to see Jacobs in the role for the entire run.
If there’s a major flaw in this production, it’s the loose end that results from the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio (Kristiaan Hansen), the sailor who rescues him at the beginning. Jacobs establishes the pair as same-sex lovers from the start, but after Sebastian switches teams and abandons Antonio for Olivia, you never get a strong sense of Antonio’s shock or heartbreak. It would have made more sense either to follow the gay subtext all the way through to its logical outcome, or not to bother in the first place.
Twelfth Night manages to spice up the setting with ’70s pop music and décor without losing touch with Shakespeare’s plot and humour, and part of that is due to Victoria Wallace’s retro costumes. Sir Andrew’s disco suit, Orsino’s bright, Adidas-style gym wear and Feste’s tie-dye outfit bring you back forty years with little effort. But the establishment side of the period is also present in business suits and in the bright blue, matching hotel uniforms. A few of the musical passages arguably go on a bit long, but never defeat the pace of the show as a whole.
This is the most fun I’ve had at Shakespeare in High Park since its 1995 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Don’t believe people who tell you Shakespeare is boring and stiff and only for literary snobs. When a play like this is done right, anybody can enjoy it.
Twelfth Night runs at the High Park Amphitheatre until September 3.

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