'Twelfth Night' dazzles at RedHouse Arts Center

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare Who RedHouse Arts Center 201 S. West Street, Syracuse When March 29 - April 7 Tickets $15- 25 Review by Katrina Tulloch 

I never realized how many “P” words were in “Twelfth Night” until I saw it Friday, March 30 at the Redhouse Theatre. Malvolio’s stutter with the letter “P” served as a brilliant device highlighting his first swelling of pride to his final downfall. Nothing is more p-p-pathetic than having to stutter the venomous final line: “I’ll be reveng’d on the p-p-p-pack of you!”

The rare feat of this cast was their ability to separate the tragic figure of Malvolio from the lovesick comedy literally surrounding him on stage. The mix of Todd Quick’s multifaceted performance and strategic lighting by Tim Brown emphasized Malvolio’s lonely paranoia of being the butt of everyone’s joke.

Make sure to get to the show half an hour early to hear a few cast members sing Rat Pack era hits like “Unforgettable,” “Smile,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” Krystal Scott’s rendition of “Fever” had the nearly full house snapping along and the music didn’t stop as the pink-bow-tied Donnie Williams emerged as Feste the fool, crooning Sinatra ballads with remarkable vocal command.

“Twelfth Night” follows Viola (Katharine Gibson), a shipwrecked woman convinced her twin brother died at sea. Stranded on a mysterious island (Illyria a.k.a. Long Island, circa early 1960), she dresses as a man to get a job in the Duke’s court. Gibson made a charming, charismatic guy in her fedora, plaid tie and cool white slacks. She delivered humor and heartbreak effortlessly and even startled the audience in one scene – holy crap! Viola can sing!

Duke Orsino (Nathan Faudree) plays the stylish, comedic beefcake in love with Olivia (Binaifer Dabu), a wealthy and glamorous noblewoman who’s also mourning for her deceased brother. He enlists Viola, disguised as a male servant, to help him entrap Olivia, while Viola falls for Orsino herself. Follow? Onward!

Too many productions of Twelfth Night miscast or misinterpret Olivia as a melancholy femme fatale. How could such an ice queen ever hire a fool like Feste? Dabu dazzled as Olivia by bringing a necessary playfulness to the part. Her court respects her as a “marble-breasted (albeit miniature) tyrant,” but at first encounter of Viola’s disguise, her giddy hops say it all. She’s a spritely but sheltered schoolgirl with a new crush and lots of gold to share.

Only when encountering her uncle, the ever-drunk and bellowing Sir Toby Belch (William Edward White), do Olivia’s twinkling smiles collapse into frowns. White’s Toby delighted as the quintessential red-faced hedonist. He’s that guy at the party who eggs on trouble but passes out before he can enjoy the mess he made.

The carousing gang of Toby, Maria, Andrew and Fabian buzzed with chemistry as they cackled over the woes of their plaything, Malvolio. The women brought the clever idea and the men brought the gall to put their schemes into action.

Karis Wiggins played a deliciously tipsy Maria, with a nasal, yet not annoying Long Island accent. She interrupted her own plans to humiliate Malvolio with a higher- than-Drescher giggle that tickled the audience to laugh along before we even knew what was funny.

Sir Toby’s sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jordan Hornstein), got plenty of laughs as a mockery of manhood, insistent on carrying around phallic snacks like corndogs and popsicles. Marguerite Mitchell made a smug and conspiring Fabian, taunting in her tight, policewoman pants.

Even after Malvolio’s tragic descent, the show hurtled forward on its comedic momentum to the big reveal and inevitable Shakespearian wedding. The ensemble froze into Kodak-moment tableau vivants but didn’t overuse the technique. Even in a bit part, Kevin-Smith-lookalike David Witanowski got laughs as a slapstick policeman, priest, lord and sea captain.

Stephen Svoboda’s direction showed a vigorous understanding of the text. The actors knew to pause and let every joke, every double meaning sink in. The props and costumes could have been snatched from the original “Ocean’s 11.” Dan Williams graced everyone with his talents on piano, while adding a touch of elegance to John Czajkowski's set.

I can only complain about Redhouse’s limited menu. Hell bent on drinking as many beers as Sir Toby did on stage, I wanted a sandwich by intermission. Only pastries, soup and drinks were available at between the two acts.

I hadn’t encountered Shakespearian literature since my freshman year of college and I dreaded betrayal from my attention span, but this show engaged me from start to finish. Yet another victory over the Shakespearian purists—this sharp interpretation of “Twelfth Night” knocked my socks off. “Most wonderful,” indeed.