At Lamb’s Players, Mike Buckley’s set hits you first. You’ve come to see Shakespeare’s “festive” comedy, Twelfth Night. It’s set in Illyria. Illyria? Yeah — ancient country on the Adriatic seacoast. But instead, the set’s a blazing, wall-to-wall reddish blush, like a strawberry sorbet on steroids. Flanking pearl-white steps are huge chamber of commerce postcards: stage right, a swaying palm says, “Welcome to Coronado”; stage left, the Hotel Del’s iconic spire and slanted red roof.
Toto, this don’t look like no Illyria. Those lapping waves and seagulls squawking overhead are homegrown (as was Toto, for that matter, since L. Frank Baum wrote several of his Oz novels just down the street). Lamb’s director Robert Smyth has relocated the play at the Hotel Del in 1949. World War II is gone, but not forgotten, the landmark bridge has yet to be built, and the guests have one more night of revelry before the Real World returns.
The 12 days of Christmas run from December 25 to January 5. So, the 12th night’s the final hours of celebration. In the song, your true love would send you “12 drummers drumming” (though I’d much prefer she came in person). The Feast of the Epiphany takes place January 6. On this most solemn occasion, the faithful renounce “cakes and ale” and go about their regular lives. In effect, the 12th night resembles Fat Tuesday at Mardi Gras: last call to paint Orange Avenue red. Ash Wednesday looms on the morrow, so, as the play’s subtitle suggests, do “what you will.”
And each does, to an extreme. Olivia, who owns the hotel, mourns her deceased brother, and will for years to come. Orsino, a ”base Captain” decked in Navy whites, swoons as much as Olivia mourns, since he’s in hopeless love with her. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek want to drink the equivalent of Glorietta Bay. Maria, a “waiting gentlewoman” who may be the island’s most intelligent being, schemes. And Malvolio, an “affectioned ass” but too inconstant to be a Puritan, envisions supreme control. He’s the “hotel manager,” but as Count Malvolio, he’d rule the Crown City with an iron hand. He’d wear a “branched velvet gown,” have officers all around him, and a bodyguard of Navy SEALs, most likely.
Everyone’s off-kilter. De-llyria’s in vogue, which you’d expect after 12 days of license. Enter Sebastian and Viola, siblings separated by a tempest, and things topsy-turve.
What follows is a dizzying game of musical chairs: find your seat and find your identity. When the music stops, Malvolio stands alone.
Another of Lamb’s imaginative choices: the play begins with Orsino swooning, “If music be the food of love, play on.” And Feste the clown does, on a black, baby grand piano. Lamb’s house-composer Jon Lorenz — who should have a Collected Works album someday — wrote original music for the piece in the style of the late 1940s. Cris O’Bryon’s Feste plays the piano and sings beautifully throughout (though he could slow down his repartee a tad; the cast in general could trust their choices — they work! — and push less).
Another plus: Jeanne Barnes Reith’s costumes are period-perfect. Antonio, a “yachtsman” (touchingly portrayed by Jeffrey Jones), sports a cream-colored flannel suit; the hotel crew, Maria and Fabianna (Cynthia Gerber and Carrie Heath, both sharp and funny), wear white-trimmed red dresses direct from the hotel staff, circa 1949. And Feste’s soft-pink sportcoat, red vest, and bowtie make him an upscale lounge musician.
The play takes place in a time of peace, even a break from its placidity. Viola enters the shenanigans like Dorothy in Oz. To negotiate her way among besotted party animals, Viola must “usurp masculine attire” — i.e., cross-dress — and become Cesario, a young man. She and identical twin brother Sebastian see two different Coronados: to Viola (played with excellent puzzlement by Catie Grady) the island’s a madhouse; to Sebastian (well-spoken Charles Evans, Jr.) the wonders never cease. He not only wins a brawl, a wealthy woman he’s never met is in love with him — Viola/Cesario pre-wooed her.
Christy Yael-Cox’s Olivia makes a sweeping emotional turn, from dank dungeon to sunny skies. Telling nuances mark the way. Jason Maddy’s Orsino goes over the top, but legally, as a self-indulgent narcissist who found someone he can’t control.
Along with directing this light, always-funny summer fare, Robert Smyth plays Sir Toby, Olivia’s entitled uncle, with festive aplomb. Wearing a long, dishwater-blond wig (one of several by Coni), Robert Mackey’s a hoot as Andrew Aguecheek, the rich, albeit bumbling, suitor. Always a few steps behind, Mackey moves like a slinky toy to catch up.
Poor Malvolio. Sure, he’s a “time-pleaser” (self-flatterer) and his mind’s miles from his body. But as deftly played by Brian Rickel, he would love to feel love. He just hasn’t a clue where to start.
Someone gave the text a useful trimming. I wish one line would have been kept in, though. Antonio, astonished by the madness, shouts, “In nature there’s no blemish but the mind.”
Hamlet says: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And Hamlet was Shakespeare’s next play after Twelfth Night.
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast: Catie Grady, Jeffrey Jones, Cris O’Bryon, Jesse Abeel, Jacob, Caltrider, Jason Maddy, Christy Yael-Cox, Cynthia Gerber, Robert Smyth, Brian Mackey, Carrie Heath, Brian Rickel, Charles Evans, Jr.; scenic and lighting design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Barnes Reith; choreography, Deborah Gilmour Smyth; original music, Jon Lorenz
Playing through June 29; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-6000. Box.Office@LambsPlayers.org