William Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy “Twelfth Night” requires suspension of disbelief. To this end, Murphys Creek Theater’s production seizes the audience’s imagination by capitalizing on their new locale.
For summer 2014, the troupe has moved “Theater Under the Stars” to Brice Station Vineyards, four miles east of Murphys.
Embracing the new venue, director Tara Kayton seems to have asked: What if a place called Illyria sat on a mountaintop surrounded by pines, agricultural equipment and tin roofed barns? Shrewdly, she answers: Deposit the cast in a Depression-era, Dust Bowl context and you’ll capture the renegade spirit of the play.
Given that this cast is filled with accomplished Shakespearean performers, the result is a charming, intelligent production.
Let’s start with Misty Day, who has an easy stage presence as Viola, a young heiress tossed ashore by shipwreck into Illyria. Never mind that a shipwreck, Dust Bowl and mountaintop are incongruous. With the arrival of the cast in a vintage 1930s flatbed truck, imagination takes over and all things are possible.
Believing her twin brother Sebastian has drown, Viola decides to dress as a man and join the service of Duke Orsino. Renaming herself Cesario, Viola quickly discovers that the Duke is in love with the Countess Olivia after Orsino enlists Viola-Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. So begins a tale in which the characters tipple and topple into nonsensical positions that amuse and confuse.
To begin with, Orsino’s scheme goes completely awry because Viola-Cesario falls in love with him while Olivia falls in love with this man-servant, who is actually a woman. Meanwhile, Orsino is flummoxed by strange feelings of attraction to Cesario.
Sid Marsh plays the white-suited, self-dramatizing Orsino with sophisticated aplomb. Brieanna Shumway exudes a classy hauteur as Lady Olivia that gives her character depth. In contrast, Emily Bock Graham, Olivia’s handmaid Maria, plays a naughty and nice character with perfect balance.
Maria, in cohoots with an Apple Dumpling Gang ensemble, unleashes the mischief that comprises a lively subplot. Graham Scott Green, as the buffoon Sir Toby Belch, leads the comedic gang, mostly in search of drunken adventure. Toby is also Olivia’s cousin, but the bottle seems to take priority over familial duty to the despairing Olivia.
Sean M. Lewis is perfect as a madcap, no-holds-barred Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another of Olivia’s thwarted suitors. Even through cartoonish drunken antics, Lewis manages to deliver highly understandable Elizabethan English.
In another excellent casting decision, Jason “Clocky” McDowell is the fool Feste. McDowell’s precise comedic timing and fluid physicality are spot-on exceptional. Rounding out the silliness is Matt Hobgood as Fabian.
In a terrifically staged scene, the four comics provide a hilarious backdrop to an incredible performance by Sheila Doyle as Malvolio. The officious fusspot Malvolio, who reigns over Olivia’s household, is entrapped by these mischief-makers in a plot that undermines his fastidious earnestness. Doyle deftly portrays Malvolio’s descent into his own fully imagined private world like a man in the grip of a mad dream. The irony that a female actor delivers a first-rate Malvolio lends flair to the cross-dressing commotion of this particular “Twelfth Night.”
Meanwhile, Ross Aldrich adorns Antonio with a wistful, swishy air as the swooning pirate pining for the rescued Sebastian, played by Robert Zellers. Taylor Hunt pops in here and there as Curio and as the Officer.
The production team is top notch. For example, the resemblance of Zellers’ Sebastian to Day’s Cesario, helped along by Ann Mazzaferro’s costuming, is uncanny. Lightning in the first act is superbly provided by a mountain top sunset that repeatedly spotlights actors at key moments.
It appears that Kayton has purposely worked in tandem with nature to accomplish this delightful effect.
The set is extremely simple — a wooden stage, muslin curtains, and few steamer trunks and old suitcases that hold props — but the actors roam the entire amphitheater during the performance, making use of trees, poles and farm vehicles and projecting their lines distinctly without amplification.
This production stands firmly on costuming, staging and solid acting, providing a terrific summer evening of fun.
The production continues until July 19 on alternating Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 728-8422 or see www.murphyscreek theatre.org for times and dates.