by Hugh Hunter
Old Academy Players opened its new season last weekend with a fine revival of Shakespeare’s great comedy about romantic love, “Twelfth Night or What You Will.” In terms of genre I suppose the play is a farce, but Shakespeare turns the gambit of “mistaken identity” into a metaphor about the human condition.
The only sane and balanced character is Feste, a wise-fool type and lifelong courtier in the house of Olivia. Allison Deratzian glories in the role, popping up all night long to sing in fine voice and gambol daintily among the lovers. Though Deratzian is a joy to watch, you sense her Feste has grown tired of having to live with such a pack of fools.
Feste is wonderfully self-aware, but everyone else in the play is “what you will.” Orsino (Hyresh Davis) is in love with Olivia. When she refuses him, he proclaims, “As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart/So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.” Orsino is too dumb to know he is dumb.
It turns out, he “lacks retention” himself. He quickly falls in love with Viola, who in turn has fallen in love with Orsino while disguised as the boy Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario in both his male and female personas. Where is all this “love” coming from? It seems to come and go of its own free will like some insane version of Feste.
Director Carla Childs is right to keep a fast pace, though I thought it flagged at the end. Alice McBee and Laura Seeley are stunning in the lead roles of Viola and Olivia, and at their very best when alone together, with Viola disguised as Cesario.
The Old Academy stage just throbs with comic joy. Some of these actors are a show in themselves. Michael Monroe and Ken Wilson are hilarious as the clown figures Belch and Andrew. And the delight Marisa Block takes in Maria’s meanness towards Malvolio is wickedly contagious.
Poor Malvolio! He is the butt of a horrible practical joke, and the subplot threatens to steal the show, in part because Joshua Keiter’s caricature, comic performance is so magnificent. Dour Malvolio is described as a “Puritan,” but it is widely thought Shakespeare was taking a potshot at upstart dramatist Ben Jonson.
Old Academy shows off its new light and sound system (light design, Carla Childs, Laura Salinas; sound design, Jesse Friedman). Costuming is truly eye-catching (Helga Krauss, Ginny Kaufmann, Carla Childs) and accents the riotous antics we see on stage.
I love both “Twelfth Night” and this production. Shakespeare often touched on the pitfalls of infatuation, where the subject-object distinction breaks down and the beloved is little more than disguised self-adulation. But in this delightful romp the whole world has gone crazy, and Feste is powerless to stop it.
Old Academy is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Twelfth Night” will run through Oct 4. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.