Theater Review: 'Twelfth Night, or What You Will,' Vermont Theatre Festival | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Twelfth Night, or What You Will,' Vermont Theatre Festival


Published June 29, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Maren Langdon Spillane in Twelfth Night - JOSHUA KUCKENS
  • Joshua Kuckens
  • Maren Langdon Spillane in Twelfth Night

Everyone has choices, but some people have fewer than others. The concept of choice is likely to be on people's minds this week. It certainly was on mine last Friday while watching Vermont Theatre Festival's production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

Gender roles and class conflict are some of the classic farce's central themes. Love triangles, mistaken identity, unrequited affection and familial fractures sweep the characters into a whirlwind of giddy romance and lighthearted japery.

Directed by Joanne Greenberg, the play opens with shipwreck survivor Viola (Maren Langdon Spillane) stranded in Illyria. Her twin brother, Sebastian (Evan Lewis), presumably did not survive. Though an altruistic sea captain (Barry Bolio) brings her ashore, she's in a bit of danger as an unescorted woman who can't verify her social status in an unfamiliar locale.

Viola's only viable option for survival: disguise herself as a man, Cesario, and enter the service of the local lord, Duke Orsino (Jesse Cooper). He's hung up on noblewoman Olivia (Sorsha Anderson), who won't take a husband until she's properly mourned her own dead brother, which will take seven years. Orsino wants a go-between to woo Olivia, and Viola/Cesario becomes his right-hand "man."

As gender-swapped Viola tries her best with Olivia, she begins to develop her own feelings for the duke, whose wooing-by-proxy plan backfires as Olivia becomes smitten with Cesario, not Orsino. (Oh, that wacky Bard! Can't he ever make anything easy?)

Meanwhile, Sebastian is revealed to be alive and figuring out his next moves in Illyria. He's soon mistaken for Cesario, which further complicates the already complex Orsino-Olivia-Cesario triad. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.

Greenberg sets Illyria in 1950s Nantucket. The minimalistic set has but a few noteworthy characteristics, namely a chaise lounge and a fully stocked bar, both of which conjure luxury and relaxation. Her director's note in the show's program describes the setting as having "clear-cut social class and gender role distinctions," in an era that's perhaps "the last when classist and sexist stereotypes held such sway in American society."

Though Olivia and her servingwoman, Maria (Kianna Bromley), have a fair amount of control over their own situations, men have it easiest in this island aristocracy. Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby (Donny Osman), and his asinine buddy and suitor to Olivia, Sir Andrew (David Klein), get to party the days away and generally act like immature a-holes.

Clockwise from bottom left: Donny Osman, Adam Woogmaster, David Klein and Kianna Bromley in Twelfth Night - JOSHUA KUCKENS
  • Joshua Kuckens
  • Clockwise from bottom left: Donny Osman, Adam Woogmaster, David Klein and Kianna Bromley in Twelfth Night

Much of the show's humor derives from the antics of Sirs Toby and Andrew, plus troubadour Feste (Jack Bradt), house servant Fabian (Adam Woogmaster) and pompous, stringent butler Malvolio, portrayed with delightful affectation by Clarke Jordan. Shakespeare wrote these men to be funny, but the actors — a group of campy old men — make the dialogue pop with childish, exaggerated delivery and physicality.

Since Greenberg chose to cast AARP-eligible guys in most of the roles — in contrast to the much younger Langdon Spillane, Bromley and Anderson — she magnifies the ridiculousness of the elder statesmen's actions, which ratchets up the comedy. Their behavior lands even more obnoxiously (and hilariously) than if the characters were played by younger Gen Xers or millennials. These men have lived long enough to know how to behave better — but they don't.

The contrast between Viola and Sebastian's arrivals is striking. Each washes ashore from a shipwreck, their first scenes cleverly staged with practically the same entrances and blocking. But while Viola schemes and struggles, Sebastian moves effortlessly in his new surroundings — and right into a fling with Olivia, thanks to the groundwork laid by his doppelgänger. He effectively reaps the rewards of Viola's work, even though that's not what Viola intended. He doesn't take anything away from his sister, but he also doesn't earn what he gets. How is that fair?

Disguised as a man, even a lower-class one, Viola could marry Olivia since that's what the noblewoman wants. Perhaps "Cesario" could find clever ways to keep "his" true identity secret indefinitely. After all, some sex acts feel the same no matter who performs them — especially in the dark.

But the Viola underneath the Cesario costume yearns for Duke Orsino, and Greenberg stages a moment when the possibility of a same-sex pairing, at least from the duke's point of view, seems tantalizingly possible. After stripping off his shirt, Orsino nonverbally asks Cesario to slather some tanning oil on his bare back. Clearly, both parties find enjoyment in this. Moments later, they stand face-to-face, leaning on the precipice of a kiss before they're interrupted. Maybe the duke is pansexual. Viola's options have doubled — but only because she's in drag.

Speaking of clothes, costumer Amy Papineau dresses the cast in chic vintage summer wear. Orsino is breezy in billowy beach shirts, linen slacks and loafers, and Olivia is never without pearls, headband and an A-line cocktail dress, except when she sports kicky and regionally appropriate clamdiggers. Toby and Andrew are decked out in delightfully schlubby and garish plaids.

Greenberg directed Langdon Spillane in last October's Stowe Theatre Guild production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The pair clearly benefits from that foundation, with Langdon Spillane delivering a physically nuanced performance as she plays a character who herself plays a character throughout most of the show.

The rest of the cast crackles, as well. Jordan, whose aggravating Malvolio gets tricked into a much-deserved public humiliation in the play's sidesplitting B-story, shines as a fuddy-duddy in need of some serious comeuppance. Bromley expertly carries off the tricky role of Maria, who, at the center of the Malvolio subplot, must balance exasperation and mischievousness with equal measure. And Anderson plays the high-strung Olivia with exceptional tension.

As with all Shakespeare comedies, the characters mostly end up happy. Unlike some of the Bard's heavier comedies, such as Much Ado, the denizens of Illyria aren't put through the ringer quite as severely. But that gives the audience more mental breathing room and emotional capacity to ponder the themes the show explores.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Campy Old Men"