If music be the food of love, play on!
A merry band of DC theater artists has brought us a glorious present. Their new company, Her Majesty & Sons, is performing a 90-minute adaptation of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with live music, under the dome of the DC War Memorial on the National Mall. It is a true love fest, full of hijinks, mistaken identities, and, best of all, midsummer madness.
The adaptation, by Director Séamus Miller, is masterful. The more obscure lines are cut, but key elements of character remain, even when plot lines are changed to honor the spirit of the production.
The actors double as musicians, under the direction of the talented Tori Boutin, who also plays the amorously ambitious but highly confused Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The music, drawn from the 1960s–’70s pop songbook, ranges from “Stop, in the Name of Love” (The Supremes) to “Cecilia” (Simon & Garfunkel) to “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival).
Orsino, the Duke of Illyria (Terrance Fleming), sports an Afro, purple shirt, white pants, and a necklace, all reminiscent of the late great Jimi Hendrix. Orsino is in love with the fabulously wealthy yet ethereal heiress Olivia (Shubhangi Kuchibholta), who repeatedly spurns him. Fleming is excellent as Orsino, although he seems to be having far too good a time for someone who is supposedly miserable. Kuchibholta, for her part, has an endearing enthusiasm, and looks suitably embarrassed when she is publicly exposed as being betrothed “both to a maid and man.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Olivia’s household, despite her wealth, is in fact hopelessly chaotic. Her aunt, Lady Toby (Jessica Lefkow), and his (or her) friend, sucker-born-every-minute Andrew Aguecheek (Tori Boutin), appear to be drunk for most of the proceedings. Lefkow, in a green dress with gold chain belt and a patterned turban, carries her stash with her in a plastic pineapple. The hilarious Lefkow resembles nothing so much as a substance-addicted suburban housewife who, having somehow landed in the tropics, has decided to go native.The marvelous Michael Wood has transformed Shakespeare’s clever chambermaid, Maria, into a gleeful and determined enforcer in a stylish Japanese robe and scarf.
Malvolio (Rachel Felstein) is a classic, and very difficult, Shakespearean role. He (in this case, she) is Olivia’s steward, and probably half in love with her from the start. The rest of Olivia’s entourage detest Felstein’s Malvolio for her narcissism, self-righteousness, and well-deserved reputation as the ultimate killjoy. Maria devises a plan to make Malvolio think Olivia is infatuated with her, and to make her appear (probably her greatest fear) as ridiculous as possible.
Felstein has a natural charm as an actress, and because of that her Malvolio, though well-acted, sometimes seems a bit too reasonable. Malvolio largely lives in a fantasy world, which is one of the few excuses for his (or her) obnoxiousness. It is possible that given the madcap nature of the presentation, the part might have benefited from a more cynical approach. But perhaps this impression of Felstein’s performance is due to my own love of comic insanity for its own sake.
Twelfth Night, like other Shakespearean romances, features a shipwreck. The plot is essentially predicated on the arrival of the two outsiders, Viola and Sebastian, twins who have survived the catastrophe, and their galvanizing effect on Illyria and its inhabitants.
Viola, believing her brother is drowned, disguises herself as a male and enters Orsino’s service. Charged with conveying her master’s love to the Lady Olivia, Viola is faced with a twofold dilemma; she falls in love with Orsino, who thinks she is a boy. Olivia, under a similar misapprehension, falls in love with her. Truly, as she says, “It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.” Viola is kind and emotionally honest, at least with herself. Anna DiGiovanni captures these aspects of her character beautifully, adding little humorous touches, such as surprise and delight when Orsino touches her.
Sebastian (Michael Wood) is completely sincere throughout, and utterly baffled by the confusion his appearance causes. His scenes with Antonio (Ryan Sellers), who saved his life in the shipwreck, provide a kind of ballast that anchors the madness that surrounds it. It is notable that Wood, who also enacts Maria, is so convincing that my companion had no idea they were played by the same person.
Both Viola and Sebastian seem focused on, against all odds, doing the right thing. This is no easy task amid the folly that surrounds them. But there is one character in the ensemble who sees through it all: Feste, the Fool (Ryan Sellers). Sellers’s approach to the role is incisive, witty, and highly intelligent. In fact, wit is the leitmotif of this production; even the costumes are witty. Producers Anna DiGiovanni and Rachel Felstein excel in Costume and Design.
High-concept adaptations of Shakespeare sometimes go astray. I personally wish that directors would remember to cut the lines “O, Scotland, Scotland!” in versions of Macbeth that take place nowhere near that country. But here in Illyria, music and laughter reign; choreographer Andre Hinds contributes several lively dances, and the actors interact to great effect with the audience.
This Twelfth Night takes conceptual risks but succeeds by fully committing to its own zany vision. Genders are bent, love is lost and found, and a good time is had by all. With an Epilogue borrowed from As You Like It, and a lovely Irish blessing, we are all sent off into our very own Starry Night.
Twelfth Night presented by Her Majesty & Sons runs to August 15, 2021, Thursday to Sunday, at the DC War Memorial on the National Mall. All performances start at 7 p.m. Tickets ($25, seated; $10, standing) can be purchased online.
The DC War Memorial is located closest to the parking lot at 9810 Independence Ave SW. The lot is metered until 8 p.m. Free parking is available on Constitution Avenue after 6 p.m.
Tori Boutin: Andrew Aguecheek
Anna DiGiovanni: Viola
Rachel Felstein: Malvolio
Terrance Fleming: Orsino
Shubhangi Kuchibholta: Olivia
Jessica Lefkow: Toby Belch
Séamus Miller: Musician
Ryan Sellers: Feste/Antonio
Michael Wood: Maria/Sebastian
Kathleen Akerley: Artistic Associate
Tori Boutin: Music Director
Genny Ceperley: Stage Manager
Acacia Danielson: Text Coach
Anna DiGiovanni: Producer/Costume and Design
Rachel Felstein: Producer/Costume and Design
Laura Hackman: Intimacy Consultant
Andre Hinds: Choreographer
Séamus Miller: Director
Sam Rudy: Press Relations
The DC War Memorial is dedicated to the 499 residents of the District of Columbia who perished in the First World War. The land was originally the territory of the Nacotchtank and Piscataway peoples. Her Majesty & Sons acknowledge them as its past, present, and future caretakers.
DC Majesty & Sons dedicates this production to the medical and frontline workers of the world and to patrons like their audience.