Of all Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night seems especially transportable to later time periods. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s holiday season production travels to the Jazz Age, the decade of the 1920s, using period costumes, lots of popular music and cultural references to add texture to an amusing story of mistaken identities, cross-gender confusion and uproarious mischief-making.
From the show’s first moment with a club singer at a big microphone performing the jaunty “Let’s Misbehave,” there’s a focus on comedy and playfulness. These elements overshadow more serious notes and conflicting threads that sometimes complicate Twelfth Night — and extend its length. Director Jeremy Dubin has judiciously trimmed this production to two acts of just over an hour each.
The comedy swirls around trickster Sir Toby Belch (energetic Matt Johnson) and the feckless “clodpole,” Sir Andrew Aguecheek (physically hilarious Josh Stamoolis), who plot to make a fool of the pompous steward Malvolio (Jim Hopkins, evolving from starchy to stressed).
Their scenes are replete with double-talk, well-executed physical slapstick, Monty Pythonesque silliness and lots of amazing belching (Sir Toby lives up to his name). In and out of their action is Feste, “wise enough to play the fool,” played with a heavy dose of Marx Brothers shtick by Chris Guthrie. His witty parries and clever debates afflict, perplex and bemuse almost every character.
Twelfth Night’s principal storyline, diminished somewhat in this forthrightly comic staging, is about Viola (sprightly Sarah Clark), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (Kristopher Stoker) is lost at sea. She dresses as a man to protect herself and becomes a go-between for the lovesick Duke Orsino (Rob Jansen), who is trying to woo the disdainful Lady Olivia (Kelly Mengelkoch as a glamorous blonde). Viola is gaga over Orsino, and Olivia gets the hots for “Cesario,” Viola’s male identity.
You get the picture. All the confusion is put right again by the tale’s happy conclusion. It’s exactly the celebratory, smiling tone called for by the holidays.
TWELFTH NIGHT, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Jan. 4. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.