Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
No knowledge of Shakespeare's works or this play in particular are necessary to enjoy this rollicking production, but here's a quick refresher just in case. The story begins in the immediate aftermath of a devastating shipwreck. Viola believes her twin brother Sebastian has perished in the wreck. Disguising herself as a man named Cesario, Viola enters the service of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him. However, Orsino is infatuated with the noblewoman Olivia, who in turn becomes smitten with Cesario. The plot thickens when Sebastian, who survived the shipwreck, arrives in town and is mistaken for Cesario. Chaos ensues as Olivia's entourage engage in their own indiscretions, conflicts, and mischievous pranks.
I have seen many of productions of Twelfth Night, but this is first time more than one aspect of that plot finally makes sense. The Sea Captain's relationship with Sebastian, the intensity of Mary's anger at Malvolio, even Sir Andrew's erratic behavior are easy to comprehend here. Some of this insight is derived from Urnov's powerful artistic choices. Urnov embraces the queerness clearly embedded in Shakespeare's folio which immediately illuminates more than one of the play's relationship dynamics. But part of the credit must also go to the actors who bring Shakespeare's characters to vivid and vivacious life.
MK Tuomanen leads the ensemble as both Viola/Sebastian. This is not the first time I have seen both roles portrayed by one actor, but it is far and away the best. Tuomanen delivers a thoughtful and nuanced performance as Viola. One exaggerated sigh expresses all the intense emotion and humor of her curious predicament. A few sidelong glances reveal her anxiety and fear that her ruse will be discovered. Tuomanen's excellent performance anchors what is often an awesomely over-the-top production.
The most over-the-top performance may come from the outrageously excellent Jered McLenigan. From the first moment he hops and flops across the stage in a shiny green mermaid tail, McLenigan is utterly hilarious as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Truly a force to be reckoned with, Campbell O'Hare is a fierce and unforgiving Maria. Keith J. Conallen is deliciously self-righteous and obsequious as Malvolio. Together, O'Hare and Conallen needle and chide each other with such compelling animosity that Maria's revenge seems like a logical outcome. Lindsay Smiling, Brett Ashley Robinson, Suli Holum, Justin Jain, Ross Beschler, and Krista Apple also give exceptional performances as part of the impressive ensemble.
Imaginative, evocative, and breathtakingly beautiful Ivania Stack's costume designs are as distinct as the characters who wear them. From Malvolio's security guard style black suit to the magenta, pink, and purple structural super-umbrella that Viola dons at the end of the play, Stack's designs are mesmerizing. Misha Kachman's functional and dynamic set design is marvelously fluid. The mind-blowing original compositions by sound designer/composer/music director Michael Kiley are inspired by everything from electronic dance music to disco. Apple's vocals are exceptional and it is worth the price of admission for the musical numbers alone.
2022-23 has been a banner year for theatre in Philadelphia, so when I say that this is the most fun I have had all year it is not for want of competition. If you live in Philadelphia or have the means to get here, purchase your tickets and get to the Wilma before this production sails off into the sunset for good.
Twelfth Night runs through June 25, 2023, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit wilmatheater.org, call the box office at 215-546-7824, or visit the box office.