Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Night in Carroll Gardens: Smith Street Stage presents "Twelfth Night" at Carroll Park

For the third year in a row, we went to Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens on a summer evening to see an excellent Shakespeare production by Brooklyn's dynamic Smith Street Stage theater company.
Making tonight even more special is that after 2010's Romeo and Juliet and 2011's Macbeth, Smith Street Stage this summer is presenting our favorite Shakespeare comedy, Twelfth Night.
-- and we felt specially blessed because it was the second night in a row (after last night's New York Classical Theatre production) that we got to see a fabulous free outdoor production of our favorite play! This one was directed with panache by Beth Jastroch.
It was also a great pleasure to see not only artistic director Beth Ann Leone in action again as Maria and one of the musicians, but also some of the other performers we recall from the previous shows, like Jonathan Hopkins, who made a wonderfully distracted and surprisingly endearing Malvolio; he directed Macbeth last year and played both Romeo and Lady Capulet in the first season. He got well-deserved applause after the scene in which he finds the forged letter. Despite the usual officious pomposity of Malvolio, Hopkins seemed to find hints in the character that he may be covering for a wilder past life that he's vigorously trying to forget.
Also, Patrick Harvey, who memorably switched among five roles last year in Macbeth, played Feste as a fairly cynical and ever so slightly malevolent fool, able to turn on the charm and witty wordplay quickly. But it was hard not to believe that he is probably the smartest person in Illyria -- and that he knows it.
Of the many productions of Twelfth Night we've seen, this Feste seemed to see through Viola's masculine disguise from the start, and like a good fool, keep his greater knowledge to himself. At the end of the play, the Fool here doesn't play reading Malvolio's letter of torment comically; it's clear he's astute enough to know when enough is enough.
We'd also seen Mary Cavett (Viola) as an icy, Nancy-Reaganesque Lady Macbeth, and it was fascinating to watch her play Viola as maiden and "man," never losing her likable sincerity; she's passionate but philosophical as she finds herself the focal point in the muddle love triangle. She's a joy to watch.
And we also remembered Leal Vona's striking presence last year in Macbeth; here, he made a stolid, good-hearted and just slightly scary Antonio in a nuanced interpretation of a great minor role.
The other performers were also excellent. The multitalented Beth Ann Leone -- who managed two years ago to astonish us by playing both Juliet and Benvolio -- gets the tension between Maria's two selves: the prim good servant and the saucily wicked schemer.
Kate Eastman's Olivia also smoothly handles her character's transition from regal to enraptured; she's vain and proud and it's interesting to watch her lose her cool in two ways: first slowly, then extremely quickly.
Michael Hanson plays Orsino with aplomb, letting us know that he has enough self-awareness to recognize his own folly as a lover. His opening monologue ("If music be the food of love...") is played here almost as a stand-up performer on a stage, beginning the play as it ends, recognizing that we're watching a performance even as we let ourselves be drawn into the artificial world of Illyria.
The production used contemporary dress, and it was clearly summer because many of the characters -- "the lighter people," as Malvolio would say -- wore casual summer attire, and they must have been grateful to be wearing shorts on a very hot and humid evening.
As Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Timothy John McDonough does physical comedy expertly and has some of the play's funniest moments
along with Colin Ryan, whose Sir Toby Belch reminded us of how we always thought John Belushi would have done a great job in this role. Ryan's Sir Toby may be a drunk and a blustering ne'er-do-well, but he knows it and doesn't care a jot.
Adam Lebowitz-Lockard is a golf-loving Fabian (the golf clubs take the place of swords in the comic fight between the two cowardly combatants Sir Andrew and Cesario/Viola, which barely is suggested here before Antonio intercedes.
Justin Tatum is fine as Sebastian, which has always struck us as one of the trickiest roles in Twelfth Night; he makes Sebastian's acquiescence in almost immediately falling into Olivia's arms more believable because it's clear this Sebastian really enjoys the opposite sex (there's a suggestion that the "toys" he wants to procure in Illyria with Antonio's money are prostitutes). As in most productions, you have to suspend disbelief to imagine that anyone could mistake Sebastian for his twin Viola, and there's little physical resemblance here.
Also fine in smaller roles are Neysa Lozano as the officer who arrests Antonio; Samantha Midler as the sea captain who rescues Viola; and Ruark Downey (Curio), who composed the music and plays it sweetly, along with Joshua Tussin (Valentine).
Some of the harshness of the play's setting has been eliminated in this production, particularly at the end, where Feste the Fool plays it straight, not reading Malvolio's letter enumerating his mistreatment in a funny vox; where Sir Toby is too stoned to reject and ridicule his foolish companion Sir Andrew; and where Malvolio seems more resigned than enraged: his "I'll be revenged on you all" is said in a low key, matter-of-fact way, and you know that he will indeed be "entreated to a peace."
And thus the whirligig of time ends with a spirited, sexy summer dance with the troupe morphing from characters to performers who "strive to please [us] every day." We're grateful we got to see Smith Street Stage's Twelfth Night, which continues performances at 7 p.m. in Carroll Park to July 8 (check their schedule). It's well worth seeing, and it's a good introduction to Shakespeare for interested kids: a very family-friendly venue and production. Although perhaps lacking some of the polish of the New York Classic Theatre version we saw last night, Smith Street Stage has its own unique virtues, and we're certain one can never have enough productions of Twelfth Night.
(We started to take pics but our old dumbphone froze, so we've borrowed all the better photos than we could ever take from Smith Street Stage's Facebook and mostly, assuming they don't sue, from the wonderful Carroll Park blog Pardon Me for Asking, which called the play, rightly, "a sheer delight.")

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