Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s choice to mount an all-male production of Twelfth Night is billed as an homage to tradition for the company’s 40th anniversary season in Buffalo, NY. This gender-bending play, however, is perfect for today, what with recent historic events and ongoing discussions of gay and trans rights. Whatever the backdrop, though, this production directed by Steve Vaughn is a delight.
Between the laughs over the antics of the many fools and the awkwardness that arises when a male actor plays a woman masquerading as a man who falls in love with another man, the audience ends up doing a lot of thinking. That’s especially so when two male actors lock lips for lingering kisses, as they do again and again.
The men playing female roles play them straight – that is, they don’t do over-the-top drag, but act earnestly as women (kudos to wig designer Mary McMahon Jakiel, whose realistic work made the actors’ jobs a little easier). Only occasionally does SDP favorite Tim Newell wink at the audience, as he plays the Countess Olivia, emerging from familial grief to become a love-sick kitten trying to snag her claws on Viola/Cesario. When Newell picks up his skirts to run off stage, it’s with perfect Elizabethan feminine delicacy. His sigh of delight and lust when he first sees the “man” he’s been chasing and the man he’s married are two people is hilarious. Likewise, Adam Yellen’s Maria (servant to Olivia) is perfectly wench-like. He’s saucy and able to suffer and rise above the fools in the play without losing feminine sensibilities.
And then we have Viola, the female half of a co-ed pair of twins who makes her way in a strange land by dressing as a young man. Upon first sight, actor Jordan Louis Fischer is a credible woman with flowing blond hair. As Viola pretending to be Cesario, though, it’s as if the character becomes an overtly gay man, losing the some of the complex layers of gender identity. Cesario’s job is to woo Olivia on behalf of his master Orsino (Chris Hatch), which is quite complicated since Olivia falls for the messenger and Viola/Cesario has fallen completely for Orsino. Fischer is best in the cat-and-mouse game with Newell, always delicately trying to plead his master’s case while eluding the subject of his master’s ardor. When his Viola/Cesario is tense, she clamps her knees together, then remembers to spread them apart in a more manly way of sitting.
It would be good to see Orsino suffer more for his love and squirm more when he realizes he’s growing overly attached to his male servant. But this is a minor flaw in a very enjoyable production.
All the love intrigue becomes something of a subplot when the clowns are sent in. They’re all too good to name a standout. The sheer number of fools in Twelfth Night makes it hard to tell them apart in some productions. Not so here, as the actors’ abilities, their varied physiques and costuming signatures all make each distinct. Take Malvolio (Gregory Gjurich), Olivia’s steward, who is dressed with Puritan severity that underscores his self-rightious behavior. There’s a wonderful scene when he’s reading the ersatz letter Maria has written him as Olivia suggesting he woo his employer. When Malvolio reads the instruction to smile more, Gjurich declares, “I will smile! I will do everything that thou wilt have me,” with an intense grimace that passes for a smile.
Meanwhile, Sir Toby Belch (a spot-on performance by the experienced Norman Sham), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (played with great dimness and sympathy by David Lundy) and Fabian (Justin Dimieri) bring to mind the Three Stooges as they creep behind him to eavesdrop, only partly hidden by movable trees. When Malvolio starts to imagine how he’ll curtail Toby’s drunken exploits once he weds Toby’s niece, it takes all of Lundy’s and Dimieri’s apparent strength to rein in the charging bear that Toby becomes for a moment. The scene builds to a dynamic and very funny crescendo, carrying the audience into intermission with a chuckle. The portly Sham portrays Toby as a Falstaff with more gas, jollity, and cleverness. Luncy’s Aguecheek, in a copious wig, blue patterned coat and foreshadowing yellow cross-gardered stockings, is wonderfully overdressed for the party he always seems to be having in his head as a result of drinking too much.
Stephen Wisker’s Feste is a bit of a surprise, on account of his leading-man looks and height. He’s a musical fool on top of being a wise and witty one. In fact, the ensemble’s all-male chorus is quite a treat, sometimes acapella, sometimes accompanied just by Feste’s guitar and other times by cello (Jay Wollin) and violin (Lucas DeNies.) Sound designer and composer Tom Makar comes through again with sprightly music that keeps the scene changes moving.
Costume designer Ken Shaw and his crew have done a remarkable job of fitting the attire to the characters so well that the audience sometimes loses sight of the costumes. On the other hand, through identical golden outfits and blond wigs, as well as casting that selected two actors with similar builds, there’s a moment when Sebastian (PJ Tighe) appears for the second time and it takes a few moments to realize this is Sebastian and not his twin. Well done.