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"Twelfth Night"

Summer of love

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The combination of Shakespeare, a warm summer night, a lovely green space, fireflies, and a bottle of wine (well, not if you're reviewing, of course) has been a popular one in Rochester for 17 years, thanks to the Rochester Community Players. The group's Shakespeare Players shingle presents the Bard's works throughout the year, but it's always pleasant to revisit these annual summer performances, held outdoors in the Highland Bowl. This year the Shakespeare Players are presenting "Twelfth Night," which continues nightly (except Mondays and Thursdays) through July 20. And it is as pleasing an evening as ever.

The play is generally thought of as one of those "rollicking" Shakespeare comedies — it was originally performed at the end of the Christmas season, which apparently was the 17th-century equivalent of Spring Break, a time for rule-bending and bad behavior (hence the play's subtitle, "What You Will").

But while "Twelfth Night" is definitely a comedy, it strikes me a rather sad, or at least philosophical, one. It begins with a shipwreck and a supposed death, and ends with a clown singing a song with the refrain, "The rain it raineth every day." In between we have a woman excessively mourning her brother's death, and a pompous servant given his comeuppance by being locked up as a madman, among other events. But there are also roistering drunks, mistaken identities, bawdy puns, some gentle gender-bending, and musings on the nature of love, and a happy ending in which order is restored, at least temporarily.

The Shakespeare Players' production, directed by Brad Craddock, keeps things light and direct, which is appropriate enough for such an informal (and huge) venue as Highland Bowl. Craddock, the designers (or at least the costume designer), and the composer try to give the play a vaguely 60's or 70's, love-the-one-you're-with vibe. There's nothing wrong with that. The play is set in Illyria, a kind of Never-Never Land, and the action has no historical parallels. This is fine as far as it goes, but the approach is a bit gingerly to evoke such a crazy and colorful period, and the show might have been even more fun had the troupe gone even further with it. The set is handsome and stage-filling, but doesn't reinforce the retro idea of the rest of the production. (More about the music later.)

This "Twelfth Night" starts at a placid pace — there are a lot of characters to introduce — but picks up steam once the plot kicks in. At the performance I attended, there were a few stage waits and some capricious mics, but the performance proceeded smoothly and got things wrapped up in a little over two hours.

"Twelfth Night" is a real ensemble piece among Shakespeare's comedies — some parts are showier than others, but all the major ones seem roughly equal. This production is very evenly cast, with strong participation from all the actors. Their enunciation is almost always clear and direct, and you'll have no trouble following the plot, such as it is.

Olivia Choma is a charming and lively Viola and convincing enough in her disguise as "Cesario," and a good match with her brother Sebastian (Edward Coomber). As a hippie-dippy Count Orsino, Ken Dauer sounds like George Carlin and looks like a Peter Max drawing. (His "If music be the food of love" speech is accompanied by a guitar rendition of "Stairway to Heaven.") Stephanie Roosa is an engaging Olivia, and as her besotted servant Malvolio, Jeffrey W. Jones (who was a notably nasty Richard III last summer), makes his first entrance done up in a Victorian three-piece suit, spats, and muttonchops, looking like he stepped from a page of an 1890's Punch magazine. In the second half, he tries wooing his employer in the famous "yellow stockings and cross garters," which here make him look like the most clueless hip-hop wannabe. Jones makes the transition from pomposity to silliness (and a bit later in the play, to near-despair) with panache.

The members of the "below-stairs" crowd in this play deserve a paragraph to themselves. Katharine Sanford (Maria), Elliot F. Fox (Sir Toby Belch), T. Bohrer (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Jay O'Leary (Fabian) have an awful lot of heavy-handed fooling around to do here; Shakespeare did go on with his lowlife characters. But these actors fool around with physical agility and even some pleasingly subtle line readings. Fox's entrance with Sanford in Act I wakes up the play, and the energy doesn't let up. O'Leary comes into her own late in the show with a very funny imitation of the pompous Malvolio.

Jeff Siuda is the Lord of Misrule character as the household's resident clown, Feste. Shakespeare gives him plenty to say and sing, and Craddock has him all over the stage. Siuda throws himself into the role. He makes his entrance in a silver lamé jacket and gold platform shoes. Some of what he is asked to do is not all that amusing (he does a song and dance with the strait-jacketed Malvolio and some disco-lighting that is downright embarrassing), but when he is channeling Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan in a mock-60's pop song, he's very funny.

The cast is rounded out nicely with James Heath (who also designed the set) as a dashing Antonio, who in this interpretation is, as the Elizabethans said, crushing on Sebastian; and Daile Mitchum in two smaller roles, to which she brings an attractive presence and voice.

That brings us to the music for this "Twelfth Night," by Mark Frey. "Twelfth Night" needs a lot of music — in fact, with all those songs it's practically a musical itself. The incidental music has been a very variable element in different summer Shakespeare productions I have seen, but this is the best I have heard. Frey's mock-60's treatments of the famous song lyrics reinforce the production concept very well and he comes up with some good tunes (and of course, the lyrics are excellent). His music generally works so well in this context that I wish there was more of it.

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