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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Snow was the motif of choice for the stage setting. What seems like tons of shredded white paper has been artistically clustered and clumped to resemble snow. The faux snow framed the stage, served as the backdrop, and covered trees and bushes. It was stunning.
The setting (that would be Illyria) would glisten in various hues, as would the icy blue glacial floor of the stage. It was considerably enhanced by the subtle lighting designs of Tony Galaska. In these days of budgetary restraint, the STNJ's artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, who directed tjos Twelfth Night, also deserves praise as the play's set and sound designer.
The question remains did Monte spread her multiple talents too thin in mounting this tale about mistaken identities and the foolishness of sexual role-playing. It's been nine years since Twelfth Night was last presented here and fans of the play will undoubtedly welcome back another opportunity to see it, this time emphasizing the comical over the romantic.
A chandelier is dropped from above and a violin solo (as sweetly played by Philip Estrera) prompts the lounging Duke Orsino (Steve Wilson) to speak, "If music be the food of love, play on." But the Duke, as played by Wilson, appears more listless than languid. If self-absorption is the key to Orsino's future acts of foolishness, then Wilson certainly remains true throughout to the Duke's nature.
One expects that the three leading ladies will be captivating and spark the action which considers the courting of wealthy and titled lady Olivia by the good-looking but dull Orsino. This becomes complicated by the arrival of Viola, a young girl who masquerades as a page to the duped Duke after a traumatic separation from her twin Sebastian during a violent storm at sea. Viola unwittingly falls in love with the Duke only to discover that Olivia has fallen head over heels in love with her as Cesario, the page. The inevitably plotted arrival of look-alike Sebastian to Illyria, and being instantly smitten with ardor upon seeing the fair Olivia, creates a series of comical burlesque encounters that provide a stage for What You Will.
If the What You Will story seems more than a little strained and incredulous at best, Monte's direction emphasizes the play's gaiety with an ample touch of lunacy. She has swirled a bit of frenzy and inanity even into the portions of the plot that are usually considered poignant and parodic. Although the play is awash in playful jokes and innuendoes that are often ascribed to the women, these come off somewhat better in the hands of the men. But neither are the women to be written off as superfluous.
Viola is played by Amy Hutchins who offers a spirited if not especially captivating portrayal of the young woman who is washed ashore at the beginning of the play. Unfortunately, she failed to define the sexual ambiguities of the role that can make Viola's boyishness as passively seductive as her femininity. Although this dark romantic comedy better suits the approach given by Elena Shaddow, as the otherwise foolish Olivia, the betwixt and between romantic exchanges between the two (when Viola is the supposed Cesario) don't risk our consideration of anything more than an arbitrary romantic dalliance.
In contrast, Erin Partin is bright feisty and a delight as the trouble brewing Maria. Notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheekiness of it all, it is unfortunate how the homo-erotic aspect of the play that underlines Orsino's attraction to Cesario seems to have gone by the wayside. This neutralizes, if not dissipates, much of the amorous misunderstandings.
It is in the following hands that the play delivers it funniest moments and offers the most rewards: Daniel Stewart stands tall, surly and unsparingly smug, as the brutalized Malvolio. And look for the sadness that creeps into the quick-witted clown Feste, as played by Ryan Farley. But just how mindless the mind can be, is exercised by jolly and rotund Dave Shalansky, as Sir Toby Belch and Matt Bradford Sullivan, as the dim-witted dandy Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Clint Ramos has done a terrific job adding Christmas touches to the costumes, especially the frilly and fussy neckwear on the men and Feste's candy-stripped overalls. A good sign was the laughter of children in the audience, who were eager to show their appreciation for all the silliness that marks this production.