If you are an avid theater-goer, your reaction to announcements of “Twelfth Night” productions is likely similar to mine: “Again?!” From schools to community productions to professional theaters of every size, shape and mission, this romantic comedy seems an irresistible programming choice.
But pretty consistently, the play’s charm overwhelms my jadedness: “Twelfth Night” wins. Written in the middle of his career when Shakespeare was at the height of his powers, the play sharply executes all of the playwright’s favorite comic tropes, and does so within a deft array of some of his best poetry. Turns out some plays wind up on stage consistently because artists and audiences love to celebrate their greatness.
Familiarity, though, brings with it the challenge of freshness: what to do to give us a “Twelfth Night” that is not identical to every other “Twelfth Night”?
At Two River Theater, director Sara Holdren is meeting that challenge by amplifying the play’s musicality and comedy. The play is Shakespeare’s most musical, but Holdren ramps up that quality with original music by The Lobbyists, lightly trimming the script to make room for musical interludes featuring on-stage instrumentation and usually lots of folksy charm. And thanks to some great performances in the right spots across an uneven cast, the production achieves what turns out to be fairly rare in staging of Shakespeare’s comedy: it is genuinely, laughably funny. At times, Holdren seems to chase some lofty philosophical ambitions that are not met with much success, but the play is uniquely fun when it is at its bawdiest, goofiest, and most rollicking.
To some degree, “Twelfth Night” is a love story in which Viola (Hanna Rose Caton), shipwrecked in Illyria, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario (because, well… reasons) and joins the court serving Duke Orsino (Joey McIntyre, the baby-faced New Kid himself: quite good in this role), for whom she falls hard despite her chief responsibility of delivering tidings of his love to the Countess Olivia (Kathleen Littlefield), uninterested in the Duke but quickly and hopelessly smitten for Cesario. Oh, and elsewhere in Illyria Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Rudy Roushdi) wonders about. Both he and Viola believe the other to be dead. Confusion will abound.
But in other important ways “Twelfth Night” uses all these machinations as excuses to have a lot of fun. The master of revels is Sir Toby Belch, a fat drunken rogue in the noble Falstaffian tradition of fat drunken rogues. In Red Bank, Kurt Rhoads celebrates this character in all his glory. Rhoads’s Toby loves life as he loves the bottle, but he is no buffoon. Holdren and Rhoads craft a Toby who operates with purpose, and a keen sense of how to evoke the most comedy out of any situation.
Now, Toby’s doofus sidekick? Sir Andrew Aguecheek? There’s a buffoon. And appropriately so: Shakespeare gives us Sir Andrew to be mocked without hesitation, and Luis Quintero embraces this position with great vigor. His Andrew is a wonderfully bumbling, oblivious dope.
Every good comedy needs a straight man, a duty filled expertly here by Richard Hollis as the imperious Malvolio: his posture as straight as his morals are rigid. “Twelfth Night” is at its best when Toby and his merry band of drunks watch Malvolio duped in real time, and Holdren orchestrates this famously wonderful scene with just the right amount of abandon. As Malvolio takes joy in a false letter lying to him about his romantic prospects with Olivia, Toby and Co. move in, around, and occasionally off of Claire DeLiso’s multi-tiered set, desperately trying to remain concealed despite their mockery of the hapless gull caught in their trap. The scene encapsulates what is best about this production: it is unpretentious and full-fledged fun.
The comedy here is more notable and exciting than the music, but the added songs for the most part are a fun celebration of the play’s melodic spirit. This is true of much of Holdren’s production: it might stage a very familiar play, but it manages to find and celebrate what makes “Twelfth Night” a joy.
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank
Tickets: available online (http://www.tworivertheater.org/). Running through Feb. 2.