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And on the Twelfth Night There Was Revelry!

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When, as a theatre audience member, you walk into a non-traditional space, you expect a show that will rival its venue in exciting irreverence. With its rowdy cast, bluegrass compositions, and costumes suggestive of a 1990s Southern frat party, Libra Theater Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, playing in the cavernous, subterranean Underground Lounge (955 West End Avenue), does just that.

The venue’s stone wall interior, as well as its proximity to the Underground’s adjacent bar, gives it a tavern-like feel, which, while subverting the proscenium expectations of most theatregoers, is more than appropriate for a raucous romantic comedy like Twelfth Night. Solidly directed by Evan Mueller and complete with fiddles and bongos, exciting entrances and exits, and sudden displays of fun, physical comedy, the energy level of the play starts high and rarely loses momentum. The actors weave through the audience – perching in our laps, passing us letters – making us feel as though we might just as well jump into the story with them. Channeling elements of bluegrass, traditional Irish, and Renaissance genres, musical director and composer Jeff Raab (also playing Feste) has infused the story with rich harmonies and driving rhythms; you’ll find yourself tapping your toe in your seat and maybe even suppressing the urge to do a little jig.

Commanding – and, indeed, possibly commandeering – the fun is the vastly talented and charming Jeremy Morse as Sir Toby. Ne’er a dull moment when he is on stage, Morse, with an entertaining vocal timbre that could belong to the imagined lovechild of Joe Pesci and Alan Rickman, delivers his drunken lines with adroit timing, specific intention, and comedic prowess. He is well matched by his right-hand man of revels, Sir Andrew, played by Nick Moore, who offers a fantastically flamboyant version of the character. There is no end to the fun of watching Moore attempt feats of masculinity, such as downing a raw egg before a duel, only then to fail miserably at them. Angela Cristantello, too, is enjoyable as Olivia. Although I missed a certain air of gentility in her take on the character, at Cristantello’s best and sharpest comedic moments – her delivery of the crowning line, “Most wonderful!” is spot-on – she pleasantly reminds one of a young Carol Burnett.

While well-executed wit contributes much to a play’s overall impact, it should, however, be a vehicle for relaying the vulnerability we find at the heart of a play, not a replacement of it. This was my one real problem with the production: for all the outrageous comedy that Sir Toby and company provide, the audience still deserves the chance to witness the very real risks and pangs undertaken by those who choose to fight for love. The marriages at the end of Twelfth Night are truly satisfying to an audience when we feel they are earned. Comedy, while fun and bright and light, is most effective when its underlying stakes are high. For every tongue-in-cheek nod to the audience, there must also be a moment in which we see that what the characters desperately want actually matters to the actors playing them.

This desire is most absent in the portrayal of the relationship between Viola (Ashley Grombol) and Orsino (Alex Mandell). Although both actors are technically proficient and make strong choices at different points in the play, there is a lack of heart behind both Viola’s love for Orsino and Orsino’s affection for Viola, whom he knows as Cesario. In Act Two, Scene Four, they sit still and face the audience through an entire ballad, each apparently prisoner to his respective meditations on love; but, in studying their faces and postures throughout the song, I was hard-pressed to find any actual sentiment or longing present in either.

Two of the characters, however, did elicit my ready empathy. Antonia (traditionally Antonio), played by the adept Emily Rose Prats, is motivated by her unadulterated love for Sebastian. In Act Three, Scene Four, after having mistaken his cross-dressing sister Viola for him, she wrongly believes Sebastian to have betrayed her. Prats delivers Antonia’s revelation – “O heavens themselves!” – with such sincerity that we in the audience immediately feel a sinking sensation in our stomachs, having been reminded so acutely of the heavy bitterness that is betrayal. We also feel the humanity of Malvolio, portrayed by Joe Fellman, when, upon reading a letter supposedly penned by his mistress Olivia, his eyes widen at the sight of what he believes is a confession of her love for him. Witnessing his haughty exterior soften, I am reminded of an unpopular high school principal who desperately wants to be loved.

Following the much-applauded curtain call, I left the Underground Lounge having had a genuinely good time. During the show-stealing “O Mistress Mine” musical number, in which Sir Toby breaks out the Charleston, it is clear that at the core of this production is a cast of performers having fun with the story entrusted to them, and for a story as delightful and as much of a favorite with audiences as Twelfth Night, one cannot underestimate the essentiality of such fun.

Photos, from top:
1. Emily Rose Prats, Jeremy Morse
2. Ashley Grombol, Victoria Weinberg
3. Roy Richardson, Joe Fellman, Nick Moore, Jeremy Morse
4. Ashley Grombol, Nick Moore
5. Roy Richardson, Ashley Grombol, Nick Moore, Jeremy Morse

12th Night will be performed at The Underground Lounge, 955 West End Avenue (at 107th Street, near both the 103rd Street and 110th Street stops on the 1 train).
Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m.
Wednesday, May 9 at 7 p.m.
Friday, May 11 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, May 12 at 8 p.m.

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