In 1990, I reviewed a concert that the archetypal boy band New Kids on the Block gave for 52,000 screaming fans at Giants Stadium. The idea of NKOTB member Joey McIntyre, 30 years later, performing in one of Shakespeare’s plays would have seemed — to me, then — as strange as the idea of Donald Trump being president.
But McIntyre — who has undertaken a number of acting projects since NKOTB’s glory days — is indeed reciting the Bard’s golden words, currently, in a production of “Twelfth Night” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. And he does a perfectly fine job playing the role of Duke Orsino (while getting to speak the play’s famous first line, “If music be the food of love, play on”). But there are other aspects of this production that are not just good, but outstanding, so I’m going to stop writing about him now.
As directed by Sara Holdren, this is an extremely lively take on Shakespeare’s comedy. She takes more liberties than most directors would dare to even think about — this is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen with moonwalking — but her approach pays off.
This “Twelfth Night” boasts original music (in styles ranging from folk to hip-hop) and lyrics written by music/theater group The Lobbyists (whose members are in the show’s cast, and play their music onstage). It also has some wild physical comedy that is almost guaranteed to make audience members laugh out loud.
Costume designer Fabian Aguilar does a good job at accenting the characters’ eccentricities through their clothes, and Holdren (in conjunction with scenic designer Claire DeLiso and lighting designer Caitlin Smith Rapoport) constructs each scene with painterly precision.
The central character is Viola (Hannah Rose Caton), who, after being separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Rudy Roushdi) in a shipwreck, disguises herself as a man named Cesario, and goes to work for Orsino. She’s not sure if Sebastian is dead or alive.
Orsino is in love, to the point of obsession, with Olivia (Kathleen Littlefield), a countess who is resisting his entreaties since she is still mourning the death of her brother. Orsino asks Viola/Cesario to help him with Olivia, not knowing (1) that Viola is a woman and (2) that Viola has fallen in love with him.
Viola meets with Olivia, and Olivia, thinking Viola is a man, vanquishes her grief and falls in love with her, almost instantly.
Sebastian is eventually found, of course, Viola’s ruse is uncovered — and her real name is used for the first time in the play, in the final scene. The story ends with the twins not just reunited, but also in loving relationships (Viola with Orsino, Sebastian with Olivia).
The main comedic subplot finds Olivia’s roguish uncle, Sir Toby Belch, conspiring with his foppish friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Luis Quintero) and Olivia’s good-natured servant Maria (Celeste Ciulla), to humiliate Olivia’s stuffy, unpleasant steward, Malvolio (Richard Hollis). The plot involves tricking Malvolio into thinking that Olivia is in love with him, via a forged letter. They succeed magnificently (and, ironically, real love blossoms between Toby and Maria).
Quintero is particularly good in a scene in which Aguecheek goes to strenuous lengths to avoid being seen by Malvolio. And Hollis is excellent at projecting Malvolio’s extreme arrogance, at first, and then the character’s surprising gullibility and, ultimately, utter anguish.
Tommy Crawford is also very good as the jester Feste, portraying him as a wandering minstrel with an eternally knowing, mischievous glint in his eyes.
One more thought: I’m sure this is a frequent problem for those staging “Twelfth Night,” but it was quite difficult for me to suspend disbelief when characters thought Viola/Cesario was a man, or mistook her and Sebastian for each other. (Her ponytail didn’t help, though, yes, Sebastian sports a ponytail, too).
I mean, look at that photo at the top of this page: How could anyone think, even for a second, that those are two men?