The Palo Alto Players are bringing a Shakespearean favorite into the 1920s with a lively production of "Twelfth Night." The show which opened June 16, runs through June 26 at the Lucie Stern Theatre. The company is also offering a virtual option to watch the show.
Initially slated to open June 10, the production's opening night was delayed due to safety precautions during the recent COVID-19 surge. Despite the setback, opening night kicked off in full force with strong performances.
Director Roneet Aliza Rahamim helms a well-oiled production that features a unique cast: "Twelfth Night" marks a special collaboration between the Palo Alto Players and Gunn High School, with the production featuring actors from the professional company as well as students, alumni and staff from Gunn, Rahamim's alma mater.
The Players' production moves the setting from Illyria to 1920s Coney Island. Shakespeare's plays are regularly reworked into various updated settings, with results varying from contrived to culturally on-the-nose. The Players struck a healthy balance — exciting sets by Scott Ludwig and costume design by Brooke Jennings brought the audience into the world of 1920s Coney Island, while the adaptation by Max Tachis avoided any forced attempts to modernize dialogue, which often fails to translate in such productions. But at times, it seemed that the updated setting didn't shed much new light on the characters and happenings of the show.
The story follows Viola (Emily Scott), a young woman who washes up on the shore after a terrible shipwreck, which she believes has killed her twin brother, Sebastian (Brian Flegal). To find work with Duke Orsino (Christopher Mahle), Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario. Viola quickly falls for Orsino, who is in love with Lady Olivia (Kristen Kaye Lo).
Viola, unable to express her love for Duke Orsino due to her disguise, pleads with Olivia on Orsino’s behalf for her hand in marriage. Olivia, believing Viola to be a man, falls in love with her, establishing a classic Shakespearean miscommunication.
Scott shone as a believable Viola, showing her range by both delivering poignant speeches about passionate love and comedically puffing out her chest as her character attempted to pass for a man. James Shelby, playing Olivia's lovestruck steward, Malvolio, was another standout, navigating the variety of strange circumstances his character found himself in with a palpable enthusiasm and commanding stage presence.
From Lady Olivia’s house to the middle of Coney Island, outfitted with roller coasters and amusement park game booths, the production's attention to detail was obvious. Sets and costumes particularly wowed in a pivotal scene for Malvolio, where his desire for his boss' love leads him to cause a public scene at a speakeasy, complete with a bar, grand piano and patrons outfitted in properly festive 1920s formal wear.
Though they had no speaking roles, musicians Henry Alper, Caroline Hodson, Charlotte Dunlap, Joey Loeb, and Aidan Roessig nevertheless stood out in their performances as the onstage Jazz Band, a key element in setting the show's high-spirited tone.
On opening night, understudies Troy Johnson and Sam Putney played the comic roles of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, respectively. Although Johnson and Putney had scripts in hand onstage, their well-delivered, truly entertaining comic relief brought a fun element to the show, made more impressive by the short time frame they had to prepare.
Palo Alto Players present "Twelfth Night" through June 26 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $27-$57 in person; $20 per device for virtual viewing.
For more information, visit paplayers.org.