Show director Joshua McKerrow couldn't resist coloring outside the lines by unveiling William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night, or What You Will" at Laurel Mill Playhouse in a special performance on the first Tuesday in January, during the little theater's usual tech week.
According to the traditional Christian calendar, Jan. 5 is the twelfth night of Christmas. McKerrow's cast and crew proved more than up to the challenge of presenting an early opening show.
Appropriately bawdy in the spirit of 17th-century revelry, the comedy may have been performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1601 (around the time that Shakespeare penned "The Tragedy of Hamlet"), decades before it was published in 1623.
Produced for the Playhouse by Maureen Rogers, of Laurel, "Twelfth Night" is considered one of the bard's "transvestite" comedies; its heroine, Viola (Stevie Miller) cross-dresses to conceal her female gender.
Up until 1660, only males were permitted to perform plays in England. In Shakespeare's day, Viola was portrayed by a boy cross-dressed as a female who then masqueraded as a boy. Mix in an identical twin brother who looked nothing like her, and audience members must have relished stretching their imaginations to suspend enough disbelief to follow.
Here, McKerrow has assembled a lively, Shakespeare-savvy cast — with females also portraying male characters — that delivered great belly laughs to a delighted audience on opening night.
The set — well designed and executed by Gretchen Hylton, Kurt Tesnau, Stevan Holmes, John Sorenson, Lori Bruun, Carol Sorenson and McKerrow — is beautifully appointed with royal blue flats, subtle white Christmas lights and a hand-painted coastal scenic backdrop that syncs with the other visual elements, especially Katherine Beem's perfectly fitted period costumes, which are gorgeous.
As the lights rise, music designer Penny Martin appears in full Elizabethan dress to perform on the harp — a classy, authentic touch that transports viewers back in time and space. And as the romp begins, McKerrow's elegant choreography of the shipwreck sets a high bar for the ensemble.
The story begins as Viola (Miller) — a shipwrecked young woman who believes her identical twin brother has drowned — masquerades as a page named Cesario who enters the service of Orsino, the love-struck duke of Illyria, played by Damien Gibbons.
Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to further his suit to the Countess Olivia, played by Laurie Simonds. But Viola — who is so convincing as Cesario that Olivia lusts for the page — falls in love with Orsino, who is discomfited by his own attraction to Cesario.
Meanwhile, Sir Toby (John Sadowsky), Sir Andrew (Kyle Kelley), servants Maria and Fabian (Lorrie Smith Saito and Laurel resident Tom Tomlinson, who also appears the Sea Captain) and the fool, Feste (Jenn Robinson) riotously scheme to trick Olivia's conceited steward Malvolio (Kurt Tesnau) into making a fool of himself.
Familiar Shakespearean themes — gender confusion, cross-dressing, same-sex attraction, mistaken identity, uncontrollable love, revenge, madness and melancholy — inevitably emerge. But the tale ends neatly enough when Viola's brother Sebastian (Zack Pajak) returns from the dead.
After 400 years, "Twelfth Night" is oft adapted to modern interpretation, but McKerrow is wisely gentle with his canvas; he preserves the beauty of the language and the Renaissance period without messing too much with the characters that he describes in the program as having the "hearts of sacred clowns."
Moments of incongruent modern physicality (particularly Pajak's) and novel characterizations (Tesnau's portrayal in his second role as the Priest is a scream) crank up the humor.
As Sir Toby, Sadowsky exudes impeccable debauchery and a seasoned stage presence. Saito also delivers a smooth, engaging performance as Maria; while Kelly, as the drunkard Sir Andrew, is vain, foppish and hysterical to watch.
As Feste, Robinson's a cappella singing creates outstanding moments. Cross-dressed in a jester's costume, her voice and energy light up the stage.
Simonds appears lithe, lovely and good humored as Countess Olivia, and Tesnau's rendition of Malvolio stands out. Fresh and winning throughout, Miller as Viola and Pajak as Sebastian are adorable — one highlight is the moment they reunite.
The iambic pentameter of Shakespeare's poetry fails to inhibit this cast; overall, all of the actors' command of the language is excellent.
Beautifully paced and enacted, Laurel Mill Playhouse's current and awesome rendition of "Twelfth Night, or What You Will" offers refreshing fun that is appropriate for all ages.
"Twelfth Night" continues on weekends through Jan. 31, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees on Jan. 24 and 31 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org.