Malvolio (Gregory Faber) aims to impress Olivia (Lauren Myers) in The Drama Group’s production of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” Performances continue Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m., through March 21, in Pilling Hall at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave.

Malvolio (Gregory Faber) aims to impress Olivia (Lauren Myers) in The Drama Group’s production of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” Performances continue Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m., through March 21, in Pilling Hall at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave.

by Hugh Hunter

“Twelfth Night” may not have the reputation of “As You Like It” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but this great romantic comedy broke new ground. The production of the Shakespeare classic now running at The Drama Group in Germantown does it justice.

Director Wayne Snover gets three attractive young actors to star in the key roles. Shipwrecked Viola (Minou Pourshariati) disguises herself as the boy Cesario so she can serve Duke Orsino (Brian Weiser). She falls in love with him, but Orsino loves Olivia (Lauren Myers). Olivia then falls in love with the “boy,” Cesario.

Quite a mix-up, and the kind of dramatic events typical of romantic farce. Yet Shakespeare’s great play is altogether different from standard farce. It is revolutionary in spirit because mistaken identity in “Twelfth Night” is more than a plot device. It comes to represent characters who genuinely lack a fixed reality.

There is no central character in this comedy comparable to Rosalind in “As You Like It.” Viola may come the closest as she is both central to the action and equally misunderstood by both Olivia and Orsino. She also delivers a line that describes most of the characters in the play: “I am not what I am.”

The most forthright character is the clown Feste (Kevin Fennell). More than anyone, Feste understands who he is and presents himself openly. In his comical way he warns us not to look for moral certainties in the court life of Olivia and Orsino.

His opposite is Malvolio (Gregory Faber), a sourpuss steward in the service of Olivia. Malvolio’s moralistic prudishness so annoys Maria (Janet Wasser), Sir Toby (Kamili O. Feelings) and Sir Andrew (Bob McCormick) that they gaily conspire to trick him into thinking Olivia is in love with him. He winds up being sent to the madhouse.

Shakespeare calls his work “Twelfth Night” because it is the traditional Christmas time holiday of mayhem and misrule. In a spirit of playful anarchy, peasants and lords were encouraged to change places for a day. But the radical idea behind “Twelfth Night” is that matters of class and sex are genuinely malleable.

Though this sounds quite modern, you do not have to read anything into the play to see it. Underlings in Olivia’s court play loose with her. There is an evident homoerotic feeling in the relationship between Antonio (Jim Ewald) and Sebastian (Steve Wei). And both Olivia and Orsino seem equally attracted to Viola in either boy or girl form.

The Drama Group show is fast paced, running for just two hours. It underscores the whirligig revelry of a Twelfth Night and the play’s energetic madcap. At the same time I appreciated the graceful use of light and music between scenes that give you the chance to catch your breath (light and sound: Kim Pelle and Wayne Snover).

The Drama Group is located at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave. “Twelfth Night” will run through March 21. Tickets available at the door. More information at 215-438-7331 or www.thedramagroup.org.

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