On the surface, the Victorian era was a time of repression and strict morals. But surfaces can be misleading. In the case of the Victorians, there was often considerable eroticism lurking underneath.
That disparity is at the heart of "Twelfth Night," which may be why director Christopher Marino has chosen a Victorian setting for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of this Shakespearean comedy.
"Twelfth Night" is the festival's first public production in nearly two years and also its first to toy with the time period of one of Shakespeare's plays. The result is a mostly commendable production that makes good on the festival's promise to produce accessible and affordable classical theater.
The play's characters project a plethora of deceptive surfaces. Mournful Countess Olivia (Lisa Rothe) appears to be in love with grief. Claiming to spurn romantic love, she nonetheless quickly becomes besotted with a boy named Cesario, unaware that the lad is actually a lass named Viola (Kim Martin-Cotten). Viola, however, is smitten with Count Orsino (Wayne Pyle), who thinks he's in love with Olivia, though in truth, he's merely in love with the idea of being in love.
In other words, this is a comedy about people who are deluding themselves -- as well as each other. Marino -- who is also the festival's new artistic director -- accentuates the play's foolishness by giving a madcap air to the proceedings, which move along at a jaunty pace and include a degree of slapstick.
These high jinks reach their peak in the reluctant duel (choreographed by Jamie Cheatham) between Cesario and an aristocratic numbskull named Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Played with fluttery fussiness by rubber-limbed Michael Larson, Sir Andrew shakes so uncontrollably, he can't get his sword out of the scabbard on his belt. Finally, in desperation, he wriggles out of the belt, cutting himself in the process.
Larson's performance is typical of Marino's nearly over-the-top approach, which threatens to become excessive but rarely is. For example, when first seen, Pyle's Orsino is swooning with unrequited love, his unbuttoned satin shirt and exaggerated gestures suggesting a spurned lounge lizard -- affectations that are almost, but not quite, too much.
Meanwhile, Rothe's Olivia is so enamored of the trappings of grief that not only do her serving women festoon her garden shrubs with black ribbons, they trail behind her singing sad songs (composed by Tom Bowen and beautifully delivered by Kirsten Alise Haimila, Pamela Kay and Jennifer Limon).
As the catalyst who leads both these befuddled souls to discover their true feelings, Martin-Cotten's shipwrecked Viola washes up on their shore like a genuine breath of fresh air. Martin-Cotten plays this young woman as someone who is not just resourceful but knows exactly what she wants -- a quality woefully lacking in Orsino and Olivia. A comic bit in the final scene in which the Count and Countess each pull one of Viola's arms is another of Marino's amusing touches.
In contrast to this broad humor, Field Blauvelt delivers a rather dark portrayal of Feste, the clown, reminding us that even Shakespeare's sweetest comedies have a serious center. To emphasize this, Marino has Feste launch the evening with a somber rendition of the same song with which he ends the show -- the song that includes the line: "For the rain it raineth every day."
As to the play's other figures of fun, Brooke J. Behmke tries too hard -- and too obviously -- to convey Sir Toby Belch's drunkenness. Paula Hubman is a more natural mischief-maker in the role of naughty Maria, the serving maid. And Robert Gerard Anderson is appropriately grim and prissy as Olivia's humorless steward, Malvolio, although instead of seething with revenge at the end, he almost seems to have learned something by being the brunt of the others' folly -- an odd but interesting interpretation.
Tom Donahue's set design is basically attractive but suffers from a clunky central device -- a screen on which shadowy projections of various windows or exteriors indicate a change of scene. Margaret E. Weedon's costumes also have one peculiarity. If this is supposed to be the Victorian era, why are Viola's Cesario and her twin, Sebastian, dressed in garb better suited to an American Revolutionary soldier?
At this point in its short history, the 5 1/2-year-old Baltimore Shakespeare Festival remains an itinerant troupe. The current production is being staged in the Great Hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which serves the purpose adequately. A more traditional theater space, however, might help attract audiences to this enjoyable production, which, though uneven at times, delivers a lot of Bard for the buck.
Where: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.
When: 7: 30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, April 30 and May 1