In Christmases past, Changing Scene Theatre Northwest (CSTNW) has put on specifically holiday-themed productions during this most wonderful time of the year. This year, however, the theater company is staging a production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night (or What You Will),” which has a more oblique connection to the winter holidays. The title refers to the 12th night of Christmas, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. In olden times, the 12th night of Christmas was a time of drunken revelry and of the upending of the social order. Servants dressed as masters, men dressed as women and women dressed as men. The revelry might be presided over by a fool in the form of the “Lord of Misrule.”
These are the elements that are embodied in Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The theme of the servant taking role of master is embedded in the story line of Malvolio, a household steward who has aspirations to become lord of the manor of the Countess Olivia. The cross-dressing element is a main feature of the story, when Viola dresses herself in boy’s clothes and passes herself off as a eunuch in the household of Duke Orsino. Drunken debauchery is to be found in the doings of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a pair of drinking buddies that are completely soused throughout the course of the play. The Lord of Misrule can be seen in the character of Feste, the fool, whose antics are central to much of the comedy.
In the story, Duke Orsino, in love with Olivia, sends Viola – in her disguise as a young man called Cesario – to proclaim his love for Olivia. Olivia, however, falls for Viola, not knowing that Viola is actually a woman. Viola, meanwhile, has fallen in love with the Duke. Confused? Throw in a sub plot involving drunken characters trying to pull a prank on hoity-toity Malvolio, the prissy steward of Olivia’s house.
The CSTNW production, directed by Palvina Morris and running at Dukesbay Theater through Dec. 22, is a lively performance, in which a talented cast fills Shakespeare’s 400-year-old poetic lines with joyful vibrancy. The pithy, sometimes bawdy, language leaps off the page and is given life with facial expression, body language and with artful delivery. Every member of the cast seems to have fit themselves comfortably into their characters and are at home with their dialogue.
Sets and costumes can be described as “black on black.” There is a black backdrop and the only prop is a black bench. All of the characters are dressed in black, but with small, colorful accents – a scarf, a bit of ribbon, a flower – added. Feste (Corissa DeVerse) begins with a sparkly, blue jester’s hat but this is eventually transferred to Aguecheek (Zach Forbes) when it becomes apparent that he is the genuine fool in the story. Feste is actually quite feisty and quick.
An interesting device, on the part of CSTNW, is allowing Feste the Fool to take up some of the lesser roles and thus putting that character in place to be an instigator of much of the antics of the comedic subplot, the practical joke played upon Malvolio (Nick Fitzgerald).
There is much to love about the cast. Jill Heinecke, one of the finest and most versatile actors around, is sultry and dazzling as Olivia. The moment when she first falls in love with Viola/Cesario (Kathryn Stahl) is electric. To see her transform, in an instant, from a woman in mourning to a woman smitten with love, is one of the high points of the show.
Kathryn Stahl is delightful as Viola/Cesario. Her telling the duke about the person that she has fallen love with (none other than he, though he knows it not) is rich with ironic humor. Her bouts of wordplay with the fool are also quite fun.
Paul Sobrie makes for a suave version of Duke Orsino. He purrs his lines with languid and aristocratic ease.
In an opening scene, Orsino is accompanied by Curio (Nastassia Reynolds) who is as brilliant as a neon bulb. As Orsino laments his unrequited love for Olivia, Curio rolls her eyes at the audience.
While the above group of characters are involved in the main arch of the love story, another group are involved in a comical sub plot in which Malvolio (Fitzgerald) – in his emblematic yellow, cross-gartered stockings – is the butt of a joke played by Maria (Laurice Roberts), Sir Toby Belch (Ben Stahl), Aguecheek (Forbes) and Feste. They trick him into thinking that Olivia is actually in love with him. When she is put off by this, they accuse him of demonic possession.
Lanky Ben Stahl plays Toby Belch as a rubbery, unsteady drunk while Forbes nails Aguecheek’s good natured stupidity and cowardice. Roberts, meanwhile, is fully at ease in the role of Maria, Olivia’s lady, who is the chief architect in the plot against Malvolio.
DeVerse is quick, expressive and mercurial as Feste the ever-so-clever fool. The sea captain Antonia (Kayla Littleton) and Viola’s near-twin brother Sebastian (Joseph Magin) feature near the end of the story, when the love complex works its way out.
If you take a few minutes to read a synopsis of a Shakespeare piece, his plays are easy to follow, even for those not conversant with the tricky contours of his scripts, especially when the cast are fluid with the Elizabethan speech. CSTNW’s “Twelfth Night” offers a fun romp for your holiday theater-going.
For schedules, tickets and more information, visit www.facebook.com/changingscenenw.