Some Shakespeare scholars regard “Twelfth Night” as the most profound of the Bard’s comedies.
Fair enough, though the production now bringing down the house at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is profound in an entirely different way.
Like, profoundly buffoonish.
Director Sidonie Garrett and a gleefully unhinged cast don’t devote much time to probing the play’s potential emotional depths. That’s understandable given the outdoor setting and lack of intimacy of the Southmoreland Park performance area.
And in any case, it’s difficult to contemplate deep thoughts when your stomach muscles are aching from laughter.
Twins Viola (Bree Elrod) and Sebastian (Ben Auxier) think each other dead after their ship goes down.
Faced with surviving as a defenseless woman in a strange land, Viola disguises herself as a young man and takes a position with the Duke Orsino (Matthew J. Williamson). In fact she/he becomes Orsino’s trusted emissary, sent as his proxy to woo the Lady Olivia (Vanessa Severo).
Except that Olivia falls for the faux gentleman. Meanwhile Viola is secretly yearning for her employer, Orsino.
Olivia’s drunken, freeloading uncle Toby Belch (Scott Cordes in full bombast mode) is turning the household upside down, toying with Olivia’s hapless suitor Andrew Aguecheek (Jacques Roy), a mincing fop.
Toby — with the help of Olivia’s woman Maria (Cinnamon Schultz), Aguecheek, the servant Fabian (Andy Perkins) and the household fool Feste (Phil Fiorini) — launches a plot to humiliate Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Bruce Roach), a pompous, joyless prig. They convince Malvolio that he’s the object of Olivia’s secret affection.
OK, that’s enough plot to get you started.
Gene Emerson Friedman’s production design and Mary Traylor’s costumes set this “Twelfth Night” in an Italian seaside resort in the 1920s.
And the production comes close to being a musical thanks to the presence of two instrumentalists on a balcony overlooking the stage. Employing a piano, marimbas and woodwinds, they deliver ragtime and stride piano tunes (Greg Mackender is the composer), even providing accompaniment for vocal renditions of several Shakespeare songs.
It sometimes seems that the cast members are in a competition to see who can get the biggest rise out of the audience.
Cordes’ Toby Belch is a shameless scene-stealer, looking like Colonel Sanders on a 24/7 bender. And he has a terrific foil in Roy’s Aguecheek, a loose-limbed nincompoop.
Fiorini’s Feste looks like something out of Lewis Carroll — a spherical Tweedledee (though with just a hint of melancholy).
Elrod’s Viola has just the tomboyish quality to help her pull off her gender-bending deception, and she has some nice physical business where she tries to emulate the macho posturing of Orsino’s courtiers. Severo’s Olivia is reduced to a giddy teen by “this youth’s perfection” (and she looks terrific in a series of colorful flapper dresses).
Roach was probably born to play Malvolio, nailing the character’s foolish pride and stiff-necked piety. The only caveat is that he plays the character so fully that we’re torn between laughing at his misery and empathizing with his genuine distress and humiliation.
In short, this is a thoroughly diverting “Twelfth Night,” full of rude and raunchy moments, tons of physical business and an almost childlike glee in misbehavior.
“Twelfth Night” runs through July 3. Admission is free.
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night” continues through July 3 at Southmoreland Park. See KCShakes.org.