Twelfth Night may be Shakespeare’s most joyous comedy – there are so many fools and so few actual villains. Set in Illyria, the story begins with a shipwreck – the only truly bad outcome in the play. Viola (Naian González Norvind) is rescued, and her twin brother Sebastian (Jose Balistrieri) is presumed dead. She decides to masquerade as a man, Cesario, and insinuates herself into Duke Orsino’s (Biko Eisen-Martin’s) court.
Orsino has problems of his own. He is in love with Olivia (Medina Senghore), who does not return his favors. The Duke is quite impressed by Cesario and sends him to advance the Duke’s suit with Olivia. And while Olivia does eventually fall in love, it’s with Cesario.
Meanwhile, tomfoolery is breaking out all over. Sir Toby Belch (Cornell Womack), Olivia’s uncle, is carousing with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jason O’Connell), who also has designs on Olivia. For extra fun, they team up with Olivia’s attendant Maria (Sarah Joyce) to play a joke on Malvolio (Greg German), Olivia’s steward. Malvolio is chronically uptight but secretly harbors his own feelings for Olivia.
There are many silly people roaming Illyria, and the least foolish of them may be Feste (Esco Jouléy), Olivia’s actual fool. Jouléy plays him with a smirking insolence. Womack endows Belch with the requisite Falstaffian bluster, and O’Connell gives Aguecheek a type of endearing stupidity, but German’s take on Malvolio is truly sublime.
The three plotters plant a coded letter to make Malvolio think Olivia returns his affections. As he puzzles out the code, Malvolio transforms from a humorless courtier to a besotted teen. German portrays this moment with such empathy, it made me want to know Malvolio’s backstory. What traumatic events made him such a dour man?
Not surprisingly, Sebastian is alive, and his arrival in Illyria ratchets up the hijinks, leading to the ultimate resolution and a happy, happy ending.
With all its strengths, Twelfth Night is a bit uneven, toggling rigidly between funny and serious. Still, the humor strikes with such force, it’s worth a slow scene or two. Jouléy, O’Connell and German should not be missed.