Montford Park Players have outdone themselves with their final show of the summer season, Twelfth Night. While all of MPP’s shows are mounted with extraordinary enthusiasm, defying the limits of community theatre, they have raised the bar of performance excellence with this show. Director Dusty McKeelan turns out a play with an exceptionally cast ensemble and precise direction, bringing this Shakespeare comedy to crisp life.
Per usual with Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a great deal of cross-dressing, a bit of slapstick, and a lot of love arrows being shot at precisely the wrong person at the wrong time.
Viola washes ashore of Illyria after a shipwreck, which she assumes resulted in the drowning of her twin brother Sebastian. Viola ends up serving the Duke of Illyria in boy drag, the only way to get employment, and one of her first assignments is to relay the wooing of the Duke to his apathetic beloved, Olivia. Olivia is grieving the loss of her brother and father and has no time for romance until Viola arrives, as the page Cesario, and captures her affections immediately. Viola/Cesario is naturally in love with the Duke, and this triangle’s evolution serves as the main plot of the play. When Sebastian eventually appears, he is mistaken by Olivia as his twin Viola/Cesario, adding a fourth dimension to the antics.
The slapstick subplot concerns Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s drunk cousin Toby, dimwitted suitor Sir Andrew and Olivia’s steward Malvolio, and results in machinations on Toby and Maria’s part to make an absolute fool of the uptight Malvolio, who of course is also secretly in love with Olivia.
McKeelan states in his director’s notes “Twelfth Night speaks for itself … My hope is that the cast, the crew, the design team, and myself have put together a production that does not take away from the text’s inherent excellence.”
This is a modest goal that McKeelan and the cast have far exceeded; they have brought the text front and center, and done everything possible to make it clear and fresh. While Montford shows can sometimes be a patchwork effort, with some miscast performers struggling against type and pace issues dragging down the momentum of scenes, Twelfth Night suffers from none of these tendencies.
The pace of the show was consistent and quick, with no wasted motion or awkward blocking, seamlessly transitioning from one scene to the next. Each character was well cast and spoke the language with natural grace. While there is nothing particularly imaginative about the production, there is absolutely nothing missing either; all is where it should be and the audience can slip into the experience of the show comfortably and with no concern that they will be left behind or befuddled by the choices made.
While subplots in Shakespearian comedies can sometimes drag the show’s momentum down with the distraction from the main action, here it was the most enjoyable part. Relative newcomers Martin Cohn and Magdalen Zinky, as Toby and Maria, delight in their plots to torture Malvolio, played by Christopher McLoughlin.
McLoughlin’s physicality and comic timing are wondrous, and the other actors manage to hold their own in their scenes with him without detracting from his focus as the butt of the joke. Overall, each actor, from Lisa Davis as Viola to Montford Park Players veteran Trinity Smith (here in a new type of role for her that fits quite well) to the smaller roles, were pitch-perfect, and all the actors worked together harmoniously in the name of the play. It is rarer than it should be to find a show with a true ensemble, and with this show McKeelan has made his mark as a new director to watch.
Twelfth Night runs for two more weekends, is free (though donations are encouraged) and if you are a lover of Shakespeare and watching quality theatre while breathing the fresh autumn air, well worth your time.
Twelfth Night plays Friday through Sunday, through October 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, www.montfordparkplayers.org.