The singing fool Feste (Kevin Orton), a folk rocker in worn blue jeans strumming a guitar, functions as emcee and stage manager, anchoring the production clearly in the present while easing the audience into the fictionalized past of the story. And what a story it is. As one character remarks of the events: "If this were played upon the stage now, I would condemn it as an impossible fiction!" Shakespeare successfully reworks many plot elements from his earlier Comedy of Errors, here finding shipwrecked twins separated (and ultimately mistaken for each other) on the island of Illyria. Viola, a spunky Angela Lin, disguises herself as a male page by dressing in the clothes of her twin brother Sebastian, whom she believes drowned at sea. She finds a job working for the lovesick Orsino, who sends her to court the reclusive Olivia. Of course Olivia falls in love with Viola (dressed as a man); of course Viola falls in love with Orsino (but cannot reveal her love because, well, she's dressed like a man) -- and of course Sebastian eventually turns up and sets things, um, straight.
As Olivia, Mhari Sandoval is a marvel. The throaty Kathleen Turner-esque voice emerging from Sandoval's pixielike body is enchanting, and her transition from mourning to love-addled is amazing to watch. As Viola, Lin matches Sandoval's deeply felt emotions and energy, shining brightly in the reunion scene with Sebastian (Keong Sim); her raw joy is achingly real. Sim, in turn, is delightful in his encounter with "the crazy people" of Illyria and in his acceptance of Olivia's marriage proposal. Rounding out the main quartet of lovers is Anthony Marble, whose Orsino is all sighs and woeful passion.
In between the love stories, we meet the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Robert Elliott), his foppish friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Noble Shropshire) and the saucy maid Maria (Amy Warner), all of whom play a joke on the pompously Puritanical Malvolio (Daniel Freedom Stewart). In the most smartly staged scene of the production, Malvolio comes upon a letter that has been planted for him by the pranksters. Stewart steals the show with his hilarious discovery of the letter and its contents. As the joke turns nasty and Malvolio is imprisoned (echoes, again, of Metamorphoses, as water falls from above), Stewart is believably outraged. His final threats of revenge ring ominously true.
But threats can't dampen the lively spirit of the production, which ends in a courtly dance to Feste's Lyle Lovett-style crooning. While it might be more exciting if Shakespeare had let Viola turn her affections toward Sebastian's friend, the brave Antonio (played by Lawrence Ballard with swashbuckling swagger) instead of hooking up with the moody Orsino, that would be a different play. There are a couple of missteps in this nearly flawless production: some of the dialogue between Sir Toby and Andrew is unintelligible, and the choice to put Malvolio in a turban and Turkish dress in one scene is confusing -- it makes him seem like a different character. But overall, Stern's attention to character detail, beautiful stage pictures and true appreciation for Shakespeare's humor combine to make this production a tasty treat.