SALT LAKE CITY — Love flickered in and out at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre Friday night, rapidly changing allegiances as Pioneer Theatre Company stages Shakespeare’s sweet and salty comedy “Twelfth Night” through April 14. Confused identity and confused love reigned supreme against a New Orleans Mardi Gras backdrop.
The story follows a shipwrecked young woman named Viola, played by Grace Morrison, who, assuming she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian (Zach Fifer), in the storm, dresses in his clothes and becomes Cesario, servant and trusted confident to the local duke, Orsino, played with ample swagger by A.K. Murtadha. In typical Shakespearian style, Orsino pines, with great groanings, for the countess down the road, the imperious Olivia, played by Kelsey Rainwater. He sends Cesario to woo his lady (a tactic that has never, ever come out well for the person in love), and, you guessed it, loses Olivia to his cross-dressing servant. There is some tomfoolery involving Olivia’s preening and snobbish steward Malvolio (a marvelous David Andrew Macdonald), her drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Kenajuan Bentley) and his band of knaves. But as “Twelfth Night” is a comedy, you can guess how things end.
PTC placed this production during New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1812, on the heels of a hurricane, rather than during Shakespeare’s original Epiphany setting. But while the real Mardi Gras of 1812 was perhaps a rollicking party, PTC’s Mardi Gras never felt like a true New Orleans revelry. Maybe if they had bumped the setting up a 100 or so years, allowing for more contemporary music, the production might have had more life. But as it stood, this Mardi Gras looked beautiful but lacked a sense of fun.
The elements were all there: live musicians, gorgeous purple plumed hats, weird masks. But somehow, the tone onstage didn't have the abandoned gaiety that defines Mardi Gras. The musicians, a violinist and a guitarist, largely mimed playing while music was piped in from above, and when they did get a few chances to accompany Feste's singing, their demure playing didn't fit with his soulful sound.
But what the staging lacked in joie de vivre, the actors made up for in spirited performances.
Leading the night's cadre of mischief makers was Kenajuan Bentley’s Sir Toby Belch, who he played as a clever, even elegant good-time man with a bit of a drinking problem. And unlike the production’s party, this guy is fun, with an infectious giggle and an undercurrent of compassion that gave depth to his role. He and his pal, Conner Marx’s Sir Andrew — who has a wonderfully rubber face — provided the night’s best physical comedy, especially when tormenting Macdonald’s Malvolio. In the wrong hands, Malvolio is the play’s one-note antagonist, the easy butt of jokes, but the long, lanky Macdonald made him, yes, ridiculous, but also pitiable, managing to pull a degree of sympathy from the audience for his maltreatment. Susanna Florence as Maria, the author of Malvolio’s torment, gave a bright and appealing performance.
Keeping pace with Sir Toby was Richard E. Waits as Feste, Olivia’s so-called fool. Like Sir Toby, Feste gave some Mardi Gras infusion this production needed: a spirited, gleeful performance that was something of a cross between Luther Vandross and an imp. Literally and figuratively, Waits did all he could to make this production sing, lending his sultry pipes to tunes he composed for the production.
Rainwater as Olivia was at her best when she was bossing people around. Her softened Olivia — when she was won over by the comely Cesario — lost some of her stage presence. But it was easy to see why Olivia, and in fact anyone, would fall for Morrison's Cesario/Viola. While intensely feminine, she made a surprisingly believable young man and an even more believable person of grit, who, having found herself in a bad situation, had the strength and good humor to come up with a plan and see it through.Comment on this story
“Twelfth Night's” secondary title is “As You Will,” and as the play wrapped up on Friday evening, it seemed a more apt title. "Shall we get married? As you will." "Shall we change genders, identities and fortunes? As you will," the characters seemed to say. The play is ready-made for a mischievous Mardi Gras twist on reality, but unfortunately, this production got more of the trappings and not the spirit of the festival.
Content advisory: "Twelfth Night" contains a few bawdy references, but no sexual content or violence.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Scott Killian wrote the music for the character Feste's songs. They were composed by Richard E. Waits.