Review: 'Twelfth Night' Under the Stars with Cape Fear Shakespeare

Eloise Baxter-Moss

  • OnStage North Carolina Critic

For a play written roughly 415 years ago, Twelfth Night, or What You Will still proves to be a jolly romp.  I recently enjoyed an open-air production presented by Cape Fear Shakespeare On the Green in lovely Greenfield Park in Wilmington, NC.  The play falls near the center of Shakespeare’s cannon and is largely considered to be one of his finest comedies along with As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The title is a reference to the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, a Catholic holiday that was celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas.  Eventually it morphed into a most unholy day of drunken revelry and debauchery, which was Shakespeare’s inspiration for this comedy of mistaken identity and the nature of identity itself.  

The setting is Illyria, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where the fair Viola (the diminutive Erika Edwards) washes up on the shore following a shipwreck.  Presuming her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned, she goes about the strange land looking for a suitable position.  She’d like to enter the employ of the countess Olivia (Alison Gayle) who is mourning the death of her own brother and father and therefore not entertaining proposals of employment, nor of marriage, for that matter.  The latter much to the chagrin of Duke Orsino (the strapping Kevin Black), who pines away for the recalcitrant Olivia who, in her misery, has cut their courtship short.  So Viola disguises herself as a man, “Cesario,” so as to enter the service of Orsino.  When Orsino deploys “Cesario” to deliver love notes to Olivia…  Well, you can already see where this is headed, but no matter.  Yes, Viola falls for Orsino, Olivia falls for “Cesario” and Orsino pines on for Olivia.  Unrequited love abounds. 

Meanwhile, enter the comic relief.  Olivia’s unruly lush of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Ashley Grantham, hilarious); his idiotic pal, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nick Reed), whose hapless attempts to woo Olivia become increasingly ridiculous; Olivia’s lusty maiden-in-waiting, Maria (Aimee Schooley); Feste, the jester of the house (the exuberant Elura Rogers); and Malvolio (Noah Harrell), Olivia’s pompous steward.  Needless to say, comic complications ensue.

Eventually Viola’s brother Sebastian (the goofily endearing Jackson Cole), who (spoiler alert!) did not die in the shipwreck after all, arrives and is mistaken for “Cesario,” the man being impersonated by his twin sister, adding to the mayhem.  Ultimately the various disguises are unveiled, the relationships untangled, comeuppance delivered where deserved, and each of the lovers end up in the arms of those they were meant for.

Mr. Reed proves exceptionally adept at physical comedy as well as with the language. Ms. Edwards is also extremely facile with the often demanding dialogue.  Not for a moment do you believe that she would ever be mistaken for a man, but that’s part of the fun and to the point.  People will see in others what they wish to see.  No attempt is made to make the twin siblings look similar, other than the nice touch of their sporting matching headbands. Mr. Cole being perhaps a full foot taller than Ms. Edwards only adds to the intended absurdity of their being mistaken for one another.   The robust Mr. Grantham is an absolute scream as Sir Toby in an over the top performance that goes for broke.  He steals every scene in which he appears, with legitimate comic chops bolstering the ham.  The feisty Ms. Schooley is solid as the bold and witty Maria, while Ms. Rogers has energy to let as Feste.  The stiff-backed Mr. Harrell comes into his own later in the play with a scene involving a misplaced and misunderstood letter, executed with tremendous flair.  The appealing Ms. Gayle eventually gets to let her hair down, literally, in what is otherwise a rather thankless role.

Director Adrian Monte maintains a brisk pace and, with some judicious cutting, brings the play in at two hours and twenty minutes including one intermission.  There are some tonal inconsistencies in the production but the engaged audience didn’t seem to mind.  You have one more weekend to pack up your baguettes, cheese and wine and head to the park for a charming evening under the stars.