Those who savor Shakespeare because of his deft turns of phrase or his layers of rich metaphorical language or his deep understanding of the human condition may not be the patrons most entertained by Quill Theatre’s initial entry in the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. The biggest fans of “Twelfth Night” will be those who simply love to laugh.
Director Steve Perigard commands a crackerjack assemblage of comic actors in this most frivolous of the Bard’s comedies, constructing several scenes of cascading hilarity. While the romantic story at the play’s heart may suffer in contrast to the buffoonery, it’s difficult to criticize a show that wrings such vibrant shenanigans out of musty old iambic pentameter.
Chief among the madcaps is David Janosik, playing alcoholic boor Sir Toby Belch, a principle engineer in the play’s mischievous subplots. With his consummate timing and easy mastery of the language, Janosik is a regular standout in local Shakespeare productions and here he balances extravagant physical comedy with sly verbal jaunts.
Bankrolling the revelry is Sir Toby’s partner, the comically ignorant Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by an engaging Evan Nasteff. Later in the play, the musical fool Feste (Luke Schares) and the hardy prankster Fabian (Jonathan Conyers) join in the fun.
As to that love story, it’s a doozy of a mistaken identity roundabout. A shipwreck lands the fair Viola (Laura Rocklyn) in the city of Illyria where, disguised as a man, she insinuates herself into the court of noble Duke Orsino (Jeremy Morris). Viola becomes Orsino’s agent of woo in the courtship of Sir Toby’s niece, the lady Olivia (Liz Blake White), who spurns Orsino and promptly falls for the disguised Viola.
In the second act, Viola’s presumed-dead twin brother, Sebastian (Mark Caudle), shows up and the “who’s who?” hijinks kick into high gear.
Meanwhile, Sir Toby leads his aforementioned cohorts in a plot to trick Olivia’s haughty manservant, Malvolio (Thomas Cunningham), into thinking that Olivia actually pines for the snobbish prig. Watching the motley crew first plan their machinations, assisted by Olivia’s scheming maid, Maria (Elisabeth Ashby), and then blunder their way through the execution keeps the audience in stitches.
Cunningham shines as the condescending, self-important Malvolio, practically begging to be brought down a few pegs. Offering another hue in the comic spectrum, Schares exudes an instantly empathetic everyman charm as he delivers witty bon mots infused with insightful intelligence.
The lovers here all are played by perfectly charming actors, but the romantic sparks never quite erupt into fire. Rocklyn is almost too diminutive to play a boy, let alone a young man, and it’s never quite clear why Morris falls for her. White mixes an elegant beauty with some fine comic moments. Her gleeful “Most wonderful!” near the finale is a highlight. But the fledgling chemistry she shares with Caudle doesn’t get enough time to grow.
The technical elements are typically minimal at Agecroft Hall, the stately outdoor venue providing most of the needed ambiance. Still, costume designer Anna Bialkowski adds great character enhancements with Olivia’s elegant 1920s-era frocks and Sir Toby’s rumpled suits.
In this “Twelfth Night,” the love story certainly entertains but, thanks to Perigard’s deft direction, it’s the comedy that enchants. S
“Twelfth Night” runs through June 26. Tickets and information are available at quilltheatre.org.