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Sunday, 20 April 2014 13:13

A Havana setting adds atmosphere, but little heat, to 'Twelfth Night'

Written by Tina Farmer
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The Details

The Washington University Performing Arts Department production of "Twelfth Night" is a well-acted, well-interpreted production that does a lot to please its audience. The set and lighting design, by Quinlan Maggio and Sean M. Savoie, is simple, location, time and mood are suggested by projected shadows of bar tops and palm trees, as well as simple tables and benches. This simplicity by design helps to keep the long show moving at an enjoyable pace, energizing the actors and ensuring the audience remains engaged.

Under the sure-handed direction of Henry I. Schvey, the actors wonderfully articulate and clearly understand both the language and the story. The leads, supporting roles and the ensemble work together well, and are committed to the production. The show has a lively, welcoming feel to it, which was perfectly set by the pre-show nightclub scene. The relaxed approach intoned by the choice of Havana as the setting helps production move fluidly through the story's twists and turns.

In addition to the technical production values, the costumes beautifully evoke late 1950's affluent style, with a nod to the Caribbean. Costume designer Maxine Wright does particularly well dressing the women, and Duke Orsino has a number of nicely chosen touches, such as his summer fedora and ties. I was less enthused with Sir Toby Belch's costume. I found the look a little too casual in comparison to the others, however, it successfully conveys a Hemingway-in-Havana tone for the character.

After the pre-show, and a delightful vocal turn by Ariel Saul as the nightclub's singer and hostess, we transition to the story. The show opens on stormy seas. Viola, played by the compelling Kiki Milner, and her brother Sebastian, a genuine and naïve characterization by Danny Washelesky, are separated when the boat they're traveling in capsizes during a storm. Each believes the other has perished, which propels this endearing romantic comedy through its paces.

The story focuses on sister Viola, who assumes male dress and character. She, as a he, aligns herself with the noble Duke Orsino, delivered with a playful, light characterization by Ricki Pettinato that works well. The Duke sends Viola to pursue his love interest, the impenetrable Olivia, in a beautiful and regal interpretation by Anna Richards. Olivia is charmed by Viola, Viola falls in love with Orsino, and brother Sebastian arrives late in the show to up the confusion. Comedy, mistaken identity and each couple happily paired results.

In addition to the primary story, there's a secondary story that provides plenty of laughs, including several moments when the actors gleefully interacted with the audience. Malvolio, the delightfully awkward and nerdy Will Jacobs, is tormented by the free-spirited, slovenly and drunken Sir Toby Belch, a humorous turn by Eric Gustafson. The lovely, scene-stealing Louisa Kornblatt shines as Maria and Will Jacobs, as watchable a Feste as I have seen.

The talent and depth of the student cast in this performance is uniformly impressive. Continually in character and clearly interpreting the text, the ensemble avoids the trap of iambic pentameter while adhering to the spirit of the poetically infused dialogue. Featured ensemble performances include Kate Needham, in an expressive and physically comic turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Ariel Saul, strong as Fabian in addition to her vocal turn during the pre-show; and Mitchell Manar as the fiercely loyal, and genuinely crushed, Antonio. The ensemble also includes nice turns by Leora Spitzer, Katie Jeanneret, Clare Mulligan, Emma Quirk-Durbin, Cassie Roberts, Kilian Suchocki, Jack Ritten, and Zack Schultz.

Though I enjoyed the performance, I was left feeling somewhat letdown after the show. I questioned the caricature of the priest visiting Malvolio. Although intended as a comic impression by Feste, I was uncomfortable with the overly stereotyped choice. I expected the musical numbers to have a Latin or Caribbean-influenced treatment. Ultimately, I wish the production incorporated more of the chosen era. With such specific setting and time as "Havana, Cuba 1958" I expected more cultural and political subtext in the production.

Washington University's production of "Twelfth Night" succeeds in many ways. It is visually entertaining, well performed and delightfully interpreted, and a few minor missteps are easily attributed to the necessary exploration and growth encouraged by the program. I found it another enjoyable production from the department.

To learn more about Washington University's Performing Arts Department productions, visit

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