By John Farrell
Twelfth Night is probably Shakespeare’s funniest play.
Maybe that is because, unlike his other comedies, it is really about nothing in particular.
It is just a simple and wholly improbable situation, a mysterious island nation that doesn’t (and pretty well couldn’t) exist, and an awful lot of jokes and comic situations. The situations have more crotch grabbing and hip-thrusting than you might expect.
(If you read up on Shakespeare you’ll discover that that kind of comedy was his forte: only in modern productions has it been cut back because Shakespeare has become, well, sacred.)
What You Will is the play’s secondary title, and that means “Have at You” is the Elizabethan vernacular. Gregory Cohen directs the new production at Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre which opened Sept. 6, and he takes that title — pardon us — seriously. This is as fast-paced and hilarious as Twelfth Night gets, with one joke, one funny sequence, one naughty sequence, piled on top of another, fast-paced, direct and effective, with so many laughs the audience never knew when to stop laughing.
The story is about Viola, (Paige Sherman,) a young woman whose ship is wrecked. Her identical twin brother probably drowned. She comes ashore in Illyria and very soon decides to masquerade as a man and marry the Duke, Orsino (Mikel Wills).
She assumes the identity of Cesario, and becomes the go-between for Orsino and his love, Olivia (Ani Maderosian). Olivia, of course, falls for Cesario too.
Along the way Viola has to deal with that and Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (Dean Figone as a bigger-than-life drunk) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, (the very mousy, slightly gay and over-the-top hilarious Leigh Hayes).
And then, there is Malvolio (John Byrd), a dour character who you know will have the wool firmly pulled over his head by Maria (Loren McJannett-Taylor). There are many ways to analyze this comedy, but who cares? Leave analysis for Freudians and enjoy the very obvious sexual jokes, like the yellow stockings Malvolio dons, along with a huge cod-piece, when he thinks he gets a love letter from Olivia. Or the way Viola inflames Olivia’s love. (Is she a he or a she in Olivia’s mind?)
The only slightly sane one in the character mix is the court jester Feste (Alex Shewchuk). Yes, he is sane and sometimes even sensible, but he has a great time making everyone else the butt of his jokes and their own lack of common sense. He has a great deal of fun getting Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in a fight with Antonio (Ramon Ochoa), the long lost brother, and even more fun when Malvolio is arrested for madness. Well, yes, he is guilty, sort of, but in this crowd who isn’t?
There is real love here, but it is trumped or at least equaled by the physical lust everyone seems to have.
“If music is the food of love,” as the play says in its first line, it’s tunefulness is soon forgotten (as are the frequent appearances of Amanda Hillig and Steven Shane as musicians whose services are needed less and less as the evening proceeds) as the frenzy increases. Only in the play’s last song, a titillating tale of man’s sexual life, is the music restored.
From Sir Andrew’s entrance through the audience to Malvolio’s scream exit, return and second exit, the audience laughed and enjoyed Shakespeare’s most inspired nonsense. You’ll have a great time, too, with this Shakespearean foolishness.
Tickets are $24, $21 for seniors, $12 for students. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 4.