‘Twelfth Night’ at The George Washington University by Rick Westerkamp

The George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance has an engaging and lively production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, running through the weekend. My interest in the show was heightened upon reading Director Bill Largess’ Director’s Note in the program. Largess comments on the en vogue practice of directors and theatres to transport Shakespeare’s works into various time periods and locations, while his production aims to present a more Elizabethan take on the production, one which this audience member found wonderfully fulfilling.

Bill Largess. Photo courtesy of The George Washington University.
Bill Largess. Photo courtesy of The George Washington University.

For those less familiar with Twelfth Night, let me break down the set of circumstances. In the land of Illyria, Count Orsino (Maxton Young-Jones) is pining away after Lady Olivia (Rachel Matusewicz), who is preoccupied with mourning for the death of her brother. At the same time, the young noblewoman Viola (Caitlin Simpson) is shipwrecked and in the process, gets separated from her brother Sebastian (Luke Smith). Olivia decides to disguise herself as a man, going by the name ‘Cesario,’ and works for Duke Orsino. A subplot, involving much of the supporting cast, involves several characters teaming up to convince Olivia’s self-obsessed steward, Malvolio (Matt Nickley) that Olivia is in love with him. The characters wrapped up in this rouse include Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Brown), a potential suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Henry Morillo), Olivia’s clown/court jester Feste (Madison Awalt), and Sir Toby Belch’s servant and friend Fabian (Nick Ong).

The strengths of this production include director Bill Largess’s wonderful casting of these young talents, the cast’s mastery of physical comedy and Fight Choreographer Karin Abromaitis’s stellar work, and the overall present nature of this cast. Every actor was in the moment, reacting to what was happening around them, and that was truly wonderful to behold.

The performances I most responded to involved several individual actors, as well as the comedic prowess of a group of actors who shared the stage multiple times. Caitlin Simpson’s Viola and Cesario shared a wide-eyed honesty, which manifested itself differently for each gender. Her work, both physically and vocally, created two outstanding characters with striking similarities. I was especially invested as she gradually let her feelings for Maxton Young-Jones’ Count Orsino slip through while disguising herself as Cesario. Rachel Matusewicz gave a commanding performance as Olivia, showcasing her ability to take the stage and draw you in, whether in mourning or luxuriating in the melodrama of any given situation and showcasing her more self-involved side. Matt Nickley’s Malvolio was a pleasure to behold, as he transforms from the uptight, proper servant we see at the beginning, to the ridiculous and somewhat forward yellow-tight wearing dreamer we see in the middle of the play, to the victim in confinement. His transformations were truly wonderful. Madison Awalt’s Feste was a wonderful juxtaposition of foolish and wise, and her divine singing voice drew me into every song she graced the audience with, be it lively and in jest or more emotionally charged. The way Awalt walked the line between being the fool everyone expects to, perhaps, the wisest individual in the room was masterful.

The trio of men who carried the Malvolio subplot, Andy Brown’s Sir Toby Belch, Henry Morillo’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Nick Ong’s Fabian, were a delight every time they graced the stage. Their physicality was truly breathtaking, brilliantly choreographed, and had just enough abandon to be believable, but I didn’t feel nervous for anyone’s safety, which is a hard balance to strike. Each actor colored his character with individuality, but the three characters fit in all of their scenes together, which made for a wonderful balance of energy in their stage time together. Morillo’s Sir Andrew was truly spectacular, both in his command of the language and his wonderful asides to the audience.

The technical elements of the production kept with director Largess’s Elizabethan interests for the production. Scenic Designer Carl Gudenius’s set was stunning, with gorgeous pillars upstage, a wonderful trapdoor for Malvolio’s banishment, and two beautiful pillars for the various chambers in the homes, and exits offstage. Sara Abdulghani’s costume design was lively, worked well with multiple characters onstage together, and shone lovely in charting the transformation of Lady Olivia. Aaron Pollon’s lighting design was spectacular, and took the audience to many locations, highlighting the new space being used and providing intimacy on the large set. Andrew Flurer’s sound design of the production was also a treat, providing colorful, period appropriate flavor throughout the production.

If you are looking for a lively and spirited production to see this weekend, give the students of The George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance your patronage and treat yourself to an evening of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

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Twelfth Night plays tonight – Friday, November 1st at 7:30 PM. Saturday, November 2nd at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, November 3rd at 2:00 pm, at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, order them online, purchase them at the box office, or call (202) 994-0995 at least 6 hours in advance of the performance, and follow the recorded instructions.

Directing ‘Twelfth Night at The George Washington University Tonight Through Sunday by Bill Largess.


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