Coming off the huge success of last summer, when virtually every performance of its four shows was sold out for the entire run, Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival kicks off its 19th season with a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Director David Mackay, one of Bard’s most winning comic actors, has set Twelfth Night in the Roaring Twenties, making the world of the play more familiar and accessible while retaining its Shakespearean essence. Nearly every scene in this delightfully fresh interpretation springs a bright comic surprise.
In place of the usual talky opening, Mackay introduces the characters in a silent black and white film, cleverly replacing all the dialogue with titles and 1920s music. There Viola (Lois Anderson) explains that she has been saved from a shipwreck, her brother Sebastian (Robert Moloney) has apparently drowned, and she will go to the court of Duke Orsino (Todd Talbot) disguised as a boy.
Orsino’s palace is a penthouse suite with a prominent Victrola. We meet him in his white tux and spats, singing “Ragtime Gal” as he courts Olivia (Melissa Poll), who vamps like Theda Bara. Olivia’s household is similarly updated. Her boozy cousin Toby (David Marr) flaunts Prohibition with multiple hip flasks. He and Olivia’s foolish suitor Sir Andrew (Ryan Beil) appear in ridiculous golf outfits and baseball uniforms.
In one of the funniest scenes Toby, Sir Andrew and Olivia’s gentlewomen (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Patti Allan) watch the uptight steward Malvolio (Andrew Wheeler) fall for their trick to make him think Olivia loves him. Dressed like an elderly lady, Marr sits and knits after wheeling Beil in on a little red wagon in a sailor suit, licking a giant sucker. David Roberts’ scenery and Mara Gottler’s inventive costumes are something to behold.
Energetic Marr and poo-faced Beil rule the show with their vaudevillian comedy, right down to pull-my-finger fart jokes. Scott Bellis plays Feste the clown in a WWI pilot’s outfit and joins them in a couple of musical trios that bring down the house. Anderson, Poll and Talbot deliver charming performances in the confusions of the romantic love plot, and Wheeler is masterful in making Malvolio both the play’s most foolish and most sinister character. Special kudos to composer Murray Price for channeling everything from Charleston to jug band to Cole Porter for the period soundtrack.
The acoustics in Bard’s tent aren’t great at the best of times, and between the noise of opening night’s rain and the chattering of teeth in the audience it was easy to miss large swaths of dialogue and plot. But no matter. Go for the delicious comic acting and enough smart visual gags to last the summer.