Every now and then, you get lucky in St. Louis. A late-May evening arrives that is clear and springtime fresh, and one of Shakespeare's frothiest, silliest comedies is playing in our largest park. Both are absolutely free, with no strings attached. You'd be a fool not to take advantage of that.
For the opening performance of Twelfth Night, there were many wise people in the audience, which sprawled up the slope of Shakespeare Glen nearly to the very top of Art Hill. The only fools were onstage, heads spinning as they fell in love with the wrong people or duped one another into believing someone loved them or simply drank themselves into silliness.
Director Rick Dildine has assembled a well-versed cast, each member of which brings verve to a play that requires a great deal of energy in order to make it sing. The cast was aided by the enormous full moon, which climbed the sky behind the stage for most of the night. Scenic designer Scott C. Neale doubled down on lunar objects by placing an equally large moon at stage right, enhancing the lunacy of the proceedings.
Twelfth Night's plot is complex in the Shakespearean manner, meaning it makes sense when you're watching it but it's a bugger to explain. Twins Viola (Kimiye Corwin) and Sebastian (Vichet Chum) are traveling by sea when a storm swamps their ship. The pair is separated, and Viola washes ashore in Illyria. She disguises herself as a young man, and in her guise as Cesario takes employment with Duke Orsino (Joshua Thomas). Cesario's primary duty is wooing the beautiful Olivia (Leslie Ann Handelman) for "his" boss. Olivia is dealing with relatives who have stayed over-long: namely Sir Toby Belch (Eric Hoffmann) and his doltish friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Haas Regen), but she continues to make time for Cesario, whom she finds much more to her liking than the brash duke.
Cesario's wooing of Olivia is very, very good. Corwin delivers Cesario's poetic speeches with speed, precision and passion — how could Olivia not fall for him/her? Handelman responds with a silky purr and a steady physical attraction, sliding ever closer to this young messenger, which causes Cesario to panic and retreat. The chase is played out several times, with Corwin becoming more panicky as Handelman grows more ardent.
Part of Cesario's panic stems from the fear of being discovered as a woman — and the duke makes her feel very much like a woman. Joshua Thomas plays Shakespeare's strong men with rare power (his Henry V was a peach), and here his is a direct and dashing Orsino. Thomas and Corwin play their scenes of mutual attraction with aplomb: she swooning, he startled. The aftermath of an unexpected kiss Orsino and Cesario share is wonderful — it's a first kiss for the ages.
But as always, it's Sir Toby and Sir Andrew who steal the show. Eric Hoffmann's Toby is a grizzled old toper, and Haas Regen's Andrew is a perfect foil with his fey mannerisms and dunderheaded nattering. Together they terrorize Olivia's household with singing, carousing and pathetic attempts at swordplay. Those songs, by the way, are courtesy of St. Louis' own Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. They range from jazzy folk to plaintive garden pop, and they add something mysterious and beautiful to a show that's already puffed with wonders.
But back to Sir Toby. Hoffmann upbraids his foe, Malvolio (a portentous and pretentious Anderson Matthews), with his "cakes and ales" speech, puncturing Malvolio's imagined superiority with each stinging word. Then he adopts Malvolio's own snide voice and orders, "A stoup of wine, Maria," while wandering away chuckling to himself.
A stoup of wine, and cakes and ale with Sir Toby and Co. is about as delightful way to spend an evening as one could wish.