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'Twelfth Night' gets inspired updating at Center Stage

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Something is delirious in the state of Illyria. This fictionalized Balkan setting in Shakespeare's antic comedy "Twelfth Night" has been given quite the makeover in a giddy, irresistible revival at Center Stage.

It's not surprising to see a Shakespeare work transposed to a more modern era, in this case the late 1930s. What counts is how dynamically the change has been accomplished.

Josh Epstein's scenery, dominated by tall, elegantly styled doors, suggests a movie set of the period. David Burdick's costumes go even farther, evoking the glory days of Adrian, MGM's legendary designer; the gowns here would have encased Joan Crawford or Rosalind Russell perfectly.

A lot more than visual spark accounts for the appeal of this re-imagined "Twelfth Night. To (badly) paraphrase a line in the play, better a witty update than updated wit.

Just about everything clicks in this fast-flowing production, starting right off with the famous opening line, "If music be the food of love, play on." I won't spoil the surprise, but only note that the droll stage business pegged to that line cleverly sets in motion the tone and charm of the whole staging.

This is the first full production directed at Center Stage by the company's longtime associate artistic director Gavin Witt. Based on the results here, it should not be his last.

In addition to ensuring nimble traffic control (no small feat, given the rapid flow of characters in and out of those doors), Witt has his well-matched cast plunging into this complex tale of cross-dressing and cross purposes in ways that sound and feel natural. Other than the Elizabethan language, it really does seem like a breezy 1930s film.

The inventive theatrical concept preserves the humor — and the heart — of the original at every turn, without forcing or cheapening anything (I only remember one pelvic move timed to a suggestive word in the text). Little more than a subtle turn or shake of the head is often enough to set off a good laugh. And, time and again, enough humanity pokes through to make this much more than amusing froth.

You end up with a welcome reminder of the myriad possibilities of love, how it can strike in unexpected ways, confusing all concerned. And the multiple flickers of attraction going on here receive an extra spark or tweak along the way, adding to the texture of a plot already rich with counterpoint.

That plot is set in motion by Sebastian (Buddy Haardt) and Viola (Caroline Hewitt), twins who, after being shipwrecked and separated, wind up in Illyria.

Disguised as a male named Cesario, Viola becomes servant to Duke Orsino (William Connell) and promptly falls in love with him. But the Duke has eyes for Countess Olivia (Vanessa Wasche), who develops feelings for Cesario.

This would be enough to keep things interesting, but Shakespeare piles on the goodies. Olivia's household includes her uncle, the wonderfully named, hard-drinking Sir Toby Belch (Brian Reddy) and his equally tipsy pal Sir Andrew Augecheek (Richard Hollis).

Olivia's servants provide still more color — the haughty steward Malvolio (Allen McCullough) and sensible housekeeper Maria (Julie-Ann Elliott), along with the jester Feste (Linda Kimbrough).

Hewitt and Haardt are charmers throughout. Wasche shines as Olivia. Shakespeare's language flows with particular ease and nuance from her, and her acting has terrific vibrancy. Connell likewise scores points with his smooth style and vivid physical presence.

As Sir Toby, Reddy is always ready to milk a line, or even a word, with just the right degree of flair (who knew "consanguineous" could sound so funny?). Hollis is a model of elegant insobriety and, in the duel scene, a droll bundle of nerves.

McCullough doesn't give Malvolio quite enough attitude early on to explain why the guy would become the victim of a pretty cruel joke. But the actor sure is a hoot when the unsuspecting servant, done up in a folk costume (Burdick's inspired way of retaining the "cross-gartered" yellow stockings described in the play), goes all out in amorous pursuit of a dumbfounded Olivia.

Elliott effectively brings out Maria's wise and determined ways, suggesting an up-market version of Mrs. Hughes from "Downton Abbey." There is fine supporting work from Jon Hudson Odom (Antonio) and, in a variety of assignments, Ryan McCurdy.

Given the gender confusion already in the play, casting a woman in the traditionally male role of the jester fits well. Kimbrough offers an intriguingly understated performance, dispensing bits of wisdom and snark in winning form.

The songs required of the role (Palmer Hefferan wrote the Mediterranean-flavored music) could use a bit more vocal weight than Kimbrough manages, but she gets through them gamely and makes their messages register.

The actress, awarded a nice costume change for the finale, is especially effective singing the last line, "Our play is done, and we'll strive to please you every day." She and her colleagues will surely succeed at doing that all the way through the production's run.

"Twelfth Night" continues through April 6.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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