For its second production this summer the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane (SFT) gave the directorial nod to Shad Willingham, one of the recent stars of its first offering “Julius Caesar.” Willingham elected to suffuse what is considered one of the Bard-on-Avon’s most endearing of comedies, “Twelfth Night (or What You Will),” in the redolent perfume of modern-day Paris. Thus the specific setting of Illyria becomes Parisian in oh so many ways.
Indeed, Willingham uses the very definition of the word epiphany from the French that literally means “Twelfth-Night” to enhance this fine interpretation of the work that involves cross-dressing, mistaken identity, prankish foolery, ridicule and romance.
As to the first of the principals of Viola/Caesario played by Michele Guidry and Duke Orsino played by John Neisler, there is much to be admired. Neisler’s Orsino embues a perfect sense of balance in his performance of one who cannot understand his attraction to Caesario and his eventual understanding of his love for Viola. Guidry’s Caesario is also well-played, but her/”his” difficulty in dealing with Orsino as he pursues Olivia, played with great finesse by Heidi Dippold, is the most interesting aspect of her character. Dippold’s performance is not unlike that of a flower, closed at first when we meet her, still in mourning for her father and brother. Eventually her heart is warmed and she does open because of her unexpected love of Caesario. Unbeknownst to her that love is meant for Sebastian, played by James Yeargain, who claims it in the second act, but not before getting involved in a dizzying plot of subterfuge.
As Malvolio, the manservant with hopes of catching his mistress Olivia’s attention, Ricky Graham is superlative. As the dupe of the plot hatched by rowdy Sir Toby Belch (David Hoover), clever maid Maria (Amanda Zirchenbach), hopeful suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Gary Rucker), artist Fabian (James Bartelle) and clown Feste (Clint Johnson), Malvolio is the unfortunate, but hilarious victim of their devices. The comeuppance he learns is that he should not live or attempt to live above his station in life. Hoover and Rucker are quite jovial and each of their performances provide audience members several moments of prolonged levity. Bartelle is as solid in his role as Zirchenbach, last year’s Storer Boone Award winner for supporting actress in SFT’s “Macbeth” is delicious in hers. But it is Johnson with his opening and closing French vocalizations of such classics as “C’est Si Bon” and his zany performance that steals several scenes in this production. Matthew Mickal, Max Jay-Dixon, Brendan Bowen, Alex Ates and Erin Cessna do well in their supporting roles, but the most memorable is Antonio, an enemy of Duke Orsino who accompanies Sebastian and mistakes Viola in disguise as Caesario, played by Martin Covert.
Costume designs by Cecile Casey Covert are thoughtful, while David Raphel’s scenic design of Illyria is fanciful. Willingham’s behind-the-scenes direction of this production continues his impressive resume at SFT including that of last year’s “The Everlasting Bonfire” by former co-artistic director James Fitzmorris and his Big Easy Award-nominated lead performance in Theatre13’s production of “The 39 Steps.”
Two weekends of performances remain for this worthy production with show times Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. (July 14-16 and July 21-23). Matinees this week are on both Saturday and Sunday (July 15-16) at 1:30 p.m. The final matinee next week will be held on Saturday, July 23. Call 504-865-5106 for ticket information (box office hours are 12-4 Monday through Friday and one hour before showtimes) or by clicking here.