Cara Ricketts as Maria in Twelfth Night

In the lobby of the Festival Theatre, the lightly swinging jazz duo of Don Englert on alto sax and Michael Wood on vibes plays on as we are eased, with the welcome and seductive sounds of their music adrift in the air, into our seats. Lights soon dim and a group of five rock-slanted musicians play themselves, one by one, onto the stage. The air is already quite ripe with music when Mike Shara as Duke Orsino declares, “If music be the food of love, play on/Give me excess of it” and it will stay that way all though director Des McAnuff’s celebratory and boldly eclectic production.

 In this musical atmosphere, whatever transpires is carried along as if on melodic lines. Everyone seems a musician in this land of Illyria-a piano appears out of the blue, of course the fool plays bass guitar, folks go a capella at will- where everyone seems to be a musician who sings background harmonies or duets when the mood or opportunity arises.  It’s an accepting world of sorts, both a play and much like an actual gig, where anything goes -unless your name is Malvolio, but then he’s such an unaccepting guy who kills enjoyment and spontaneity.

 The theatrically supportive music by McAnuff and co-composer Michael Roth might make reference to rock, MOR, and the rest, but it’s Debra Hanson’s set that is heavier metal with a gold-plated frame around multi-shaped mirror fragments, a metallic chandelier, and costumes of musicians metal-covered. The set is made of strong elements, like a large kneeling stone angel for one, that visually sustain McAnuff’s broad spectacle of fun, and costumes often reflect several eras in one single garment. Another nice touch is how musicians seem like trees popping up all about, as if the earth too is made of music.

 A major delight of this spirit-tickling production –other than Shakespeare’s use of suspense, misunderstandings, confusion, and happy resolution- is McAnuff’s knack with comic actors. We hear not spoken text but individual human voices in the characterizations, with words and phrases often shaped into delicious meanings. Many a character seems pivotal to the tale because each one is substantially realized and each comes with hilarious identifying qualities or, in the case of Sara Topham’s Olivia, accompanied by a Valkyre-like quartet.

 A number performances, like some situations, feel so freshly conceived and realized that they seem to glisten with dew. Ben Carlson is a quick and sour Jester Feste, a man with assertive and secure confidence,  a man quick  enough of mind to do subtle put downs that sometimes elude their victims. When Feste sings for us, we hope for a longer set, a CD. Tom Rooney is a rigid, humourless Malvolio, indeed a “churlish messenger” with a furrowed brow and a confrontational attitude. He is a man of limited spirit who brings no happiness, a man who is smugly dismissive like a social crab.

 Cara Ricketts brings both an extroverted femininity and a spritely sexiness to Maria.  She is a playful creature who helps to humiliate Malvolio, yet she is also a woman of linear elegance like a dancer, one infused with rays of feminine light that emanate from her presence. Sara Topham’s Olivia shows a secure authority through both her clipped delivery and her girlish twinkle.  She is self-indulgent in melodramatic feelings, made of inner energy wanting some place to go, and has the pleasing effect of a happy and delighted lightbulb.

 Brian Dennehy’s Sir Toby is bullish and plodding in his levity, a bloated dirty old guy, a somewhat repugnant, well, belch of a man who dominates space by his large figure and especially his unwavering manner. He’s a golfer too. Mike Shara’s Orsino, a man more inwardly directed than Toby, seems ever befuddled of mind, suggests a short fuse and speaks self-regardingly as if to mirrors. Steve Ouimette’s Aguecheek has a pummeled face, one that has been through the grinder of life, it seems. He is sluggish in enthusiasm, like a mentally challenged prune, and a memorable blend of seeming inner doubt and self-regard.

 In the central role of Viola, Suzy Jane Hunt does intriguing fill in for Andrea Runge, out with a bad back, who one assumes would have been an open-hearted and emotionally forward Viola. Hunt’s Viola, however, while not outwardly glowing with inner emotion nor overly expressive as a figure of authority, draws us consistently to her nonetheless. This Viola seems a woman of inherent sadness, reflective, distinctly rich with a quiet but intense passion. She has a quality of emotional aloofness that seems equally decisive and vulnerable at one go. A quality of yearning pervades her character. She ably fills the androgynous bill and suggests a sense of daring as she negotiates with her own heart. She keeps us curious and tuned in. We like her and feel concern about her.

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