Review by Amelia Parenteau
To open its 30th season, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane presents Twelfth Night, directed by AJ Allegra. Allegra’s version of Twelfth Night is placed in 1950s Italy, as evidenced by the set’s colorful two-story façades and town square with a faux marble fountain laced with climbing ivy, designed by Joan Long. The audience sits surrounding 3 sides of the stage, and with actors entering and exiting from 4 different access points, feels enmeshed in the comings and goings of this charming Illyria.
Whose Italy we’re inhabiting varies from character to character. Tia René Williams brings a strong Strega Nona vibe (and accent) to the town square, while Mike Harkins and Keith Claverie as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, respectively, lean more Sopranos. Allegra’s direction keeps a tight pace, which serves the comedic timing of the many pranks and plots unspooling throughout this story, while also allowing for moments of stillness for the audience to soak up the lyrical acoustic music composed by Ainsley Matich, performed live by Rich Dally III, Noah Hazzard, and Steven Rose.
One particularly delightful piece of staging was the 3 Stooges-esque trio of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian (Noah Hazzard) spying on Malvolio (Graham Burk) through three shuttered doors on the upstairs balcony as he reads the faux love letter intended to humiliate him. Similarly, the dramatic irony at the end of the play is almost unbearable as the characters fail to understand there are siblings afoot rather than just one rascal Cesario, deliciously exacerbated by staggered staging, keeping Viola just out of Sebastian’s eyeline.
While the word play and “sword” play and poor Malvolio in his yellow stockings, cross-gartered, still hold their charm some 420 years after Twelfth Night was written, Viola’s cross-dressing for survival made me yearn for an unabashedly queer telling of this story. Instead of telling him/her “Cesario, come/ For so you shall be, while you are a man./ But when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen,” what if, in the final moments, Orsino was proud to be seen in public with his male-passing lover?
As always, Kacie Thomassie’s costumes dazzle, particularly the mourning ensemble and whoops-I’m-in-love floral number worn impeccably by Brittany N. Williams. Mandi Wood’s lighting design and Mike Harkins’ sound design rounded out the Mediterranean world, and achieved a hilarious climax with a warm, rose-colored spotlight on the door to Olivia’s chambers while Italian opera swelled and Sebastian and Olivia enjoyed each other’s company, if you will.
Twelfth Night runs through June 24, 2023. Tickets and more information available here.
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