Blackfriars Playhouse of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, has continued with its productions through the Coronavirus pandemic, streaming a complete playbill of its already-planned season this past spring. The venue is now presenting Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” in three formats. The show can be seen in an outside venue (“under the stars,” on the lawn of the Blackburn Inn), live in its Elizabethan-style theatre (with audience in masks and social distancing), and via online video streaming from the theatre. We recently had an opportunity to enjoy the online version of the production, complete with its now-unusual, but centuries-old, custom of “universal lighting” which illuminates equally both the actors and the audience.
Appearance versus reality is a running theme throughout this Shakespearean comedy and is handled expertly in this production…
The full production runs two hours, but a portion of this includes the cast performing live music at the beginning and also in scenes within the play itself. This is appropriate, for “Twelfth Night” opens with the lines: “If music be the food of love, play on!” The brooding Duke Orsino of Illyria (excellently portrayed by Brandon Carter) is lovesick for the Countess Olivia (played regally by Constance Swain), who is in mourning following the passing of her brother. Meanwhile Viola (splendidly portrayed by one of two talented actresses — more on this follows), disguises herself as the male page, Cesario, while also lamenting her missing brother whom she believes to be dead after a shipwreck. She begins to fall in love with Orsino, while Olivia starts feeling pangs of love for Cesario (who is actually Viola!)
Appearance versus reality is a running theme throughout this Shakespearean comedy and is handled expertly in this production directed by Dan Hasse. Malvolio is wonderfully acted by Michael Manocciao, and initially appears to have evil intent. Indeed, the character’s name even telegraphs evil. Over time, he shows a very human and vulnerable side when he himself is maliciously deceived. This Malvolio is young and handsome (unlike most portrayals of the character). Mr. Manoccaio conveys the despair and bewilderment Malvolio feels at the world’s disdain for him through his use of both gesture and intonation. Feste the Fool is the jester, and, in this performance, he is a very musical one. Actor Chris Johnson shows himself, in Shakespeare’s words, as “the fellow [who] is wise enough to play the fool.” The production juxtaposes Feste’s rustic costume and foolish appearance with the well-enunciated wisdom of his words. He ultimately reminds Olivia that she herself may be a fool, even if an aristocratic one, for shutting herself away from the world through excessive mourning for her brother for an intended seven years.
Finally, there is Viola, the woman playing a man, giving a standout performance. This production actually has two actresses who bring life to the character — Mia Wurgaft and Zoe Speas. Which one plays Viola is determined by a coin-toss before each performance. The other will enact the character of Viola’s fraternal twin, Sebastian. The challenge faced by both performers is to strike a delicate balance of presenting the character of Viola as masculine in order to keep her disguise in the world of the play, yet also be feminine enough to keep the audience mindful of her true identity. Part of the appearance vs. reality dichotomy in Shakespeare’s time was that Viola (and all other male and female parts) were played by men. Blackfriars puts a twist on this historical Shakespearean gender fluidity by having some male parts portrayed by women. The Speas-Wurgaft coin-toss has one of the actresses playing Sebastian, while Jessika D. Williams plays Sebastian’s close friend Antonio.
Props for the Blackfriars Playhouse staging of “Twelfth Night” include a garden table and ubiquitous ivy and leaves, lending the production a verdant and lively atmosphere appropriate to a comedy and to our current season of summer. Costumes by Victoria Depew are superb, conveying the timelessness of the events taking place on stage. At times the costumes suggest the Elizabethan era, but at others they are more reminiscent of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Malvolio is wonderfully over-the-top as he struts about the stage dressed in a Rococo powdered wig, lace, a beauty mark dappled on his cheek, and sporting his “cross-gartered yellow stockings,” a style which he is has been told (falsely) that Olivia likes. This flashy appearance is the opposite of Malvolio’s actually puritanical nature, making both seem marvelously ironic. Topher Embrey as the foppish Sir Andrew is agile and flamboyant, similarly sporting an elaborate costume which enhances his stage presence. John Harrell, whom we enjoyed last year as Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Blackfriars, is excellent in terms of costume and stage presence, again in the somewhat Falstaffian role of Sir Toby, the drunken knight. To enhance the imaginary world of the play, excellent sound effects serve to express the surge of the sea after a shipwreck.
“Twelfth Night” finds the troupe at Blackfriars Playhouse in excellent form. The production also whets this reviewer’s appetite for the group’s upcoming production of “Othello.”
Running time: Two hours without intermission.
The multiple ways to enjoy the “Twelfth Night, which runs another week, can be explored here.