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Theater review: 'Twelfth Night' at Blackfriars Theatre


When a theater company opens the season with an experimental take on a Shakespearean work, it's a calculated gamble. In a digitally saturated world that provides a three-minute video version, SparkNotes study guide, and Wikipedia synopsis for every play in The Bard's canon, there's no guarantee audiences will care enough to see a three-hour run -- much less stay engaged throughout. And, really, what hasn't been done in the realm of Shakespearean productions already?

Blackfriars Theatre decided to take that risk with "Twelfth Night," its 2017-18 season opener, setting the comedy in the 1920's and casting solely female actors in the show. The latter decision is one that's been trending in theaters internationally over the past few years -- perhaps most notably with The Public's Shakespeare in the Park production of "Taming of the Shrew" last summer in New York City.

For the sake of both experimentation and entertainment, "Twelfth Night" is a fitting choice for several reasons. At the top of the show, twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked and separated. When Viola is rescued on the coast of Illyria, she assumes Sebastian is dead and decides to find work. Disguised as a man, she goes to work for Duke Orsino -- in this case, the proprietor of a speakeasy not-so-subtly called The Big O -- and becomes his agent in wooing Lady Olivia (here, The Big O's headlining performer). The storyline is filled with mistaken identities, missed connections, and romantic mischief, providing director Alexa Scott-Flaherty with plenty of creative license.

Filling the show's roles are 13 recognizable female performers -- many of whom have performed with Blackfriars or other Rochester companies in the past year. The cast's program bios reflect varying ages and training levels, but Scott-Flaherty has done an admirable job shaping an ensemble that is strong, from the smallest role to the largest.

While some of the script's original male characters have been changed to females -- Fabian becomes Fabia; Feste the Jester is played as a woman -- half of the cast members don moustaches and masculine clothing for their roles. This, of course, is a reversal of the way Shakespearean roles were historically played: before it was acceptable for women to act, young men with higher vocal ranges were cast as the heroine, handmaid, and hag.

Each actor contributes to the consistently entertaining, energetic production, yet there are a few who stand out: As Viola, Sara Michelle Penner is eloquent and earnest; Linda Starkweather plays a bumbling, charming Malvolio; and comedic duo Kate Armstrong (Sir Andrew) and Beth Winslow (Sir Toby) are not only adept at delivering Shakespearean dialogue, but also provide most of the show's funniest moments (Abby DeVuyst, as Fabia, is an equally hilarious addition to the team).

Some of the casting decisions are hard to understand based on context (Winslow's Sir Toby is not believable as an uncle to Erin-Kate Howard's Olivia, for instance). There are also several scenes that should be romantic, but feel high-school-date awkward. All in all, though, these things aren't enough to weaken the impact of "Twelfth Night."

Musical composer Andy Pratt has created original music for the show, and the bulk of the 1920's-esque tunes are executed onstage by a three-piece band of impressive high school-age performers. The music itself adds a welcome ambience to the scenes, and Micayla Greco (Feste) sings many of the numbers nightclub-style with a vintage microphone.

The show is also a feast for the eyes. The scenic design by Allen Wright Shannon provides a two-story backdrop for the plot's action, with spiral staircases and plenty of swinging doors to give more movement to the set. And costume designer Janice Elizabeth Ferger has outfitted the cast in everything from boxy tweed slacks and suspenders to sparkling, fringe-trimmed flapper gowns.

To increase audience immersion, Blackfriars has added several interesting seating options for this particular show. Attendees can pay $10 or $15 per ticket to sit at a table or on a pillow onstage, but the cast does interact with them from time-to-time (nothing too strenuous).

After a three-hour run, including a 15-minute intermission that ran over, on a sold-out opening night, the audience was still engaged and responding (even those in the onstage seats). With a smart director, talented cast, and stellar design, "Twelfth Night" is a gamble that achieves some greatness.