After a year’s break, Princeton Rep is once again performing Shakespeare in Princeton’s Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater in Community Park North. Now halfway through its six-week season, which runs through Sunday, August 27, the company presents its free production of “Twelfth Night,” Thursdays through Sundays, for three more weekends.
Princeton Rep’s 1999 production of “Twelfth Night” in Palmer Square was such a success that it launched the move to the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater. As the company did not have performances last year, they apparently decided “Twelfth Night” would be a good choice to do again. This time, though, the setting has been changed. The separated shipwrecked siblings still end up on the island of Illyria, but the time frame is the 1960s and Illyria is now located off the coast of Maine and modeled after Monhegan, an island long-favored by artists, including Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and various Wyeths.
“Twelth Night, or What You Will” is a comedy that thrives on gender bending and mistaken identities. Viola and Sebastian, victims of an accident at sea, end up on the island of Illyria, each thinking the other is dead. On that island live Orsino, the duke of Illyria, and Olivia, a countess. Viola, who falls in love with Orsino, disguises herself as a man and goes to work in Orsino’s service. When she goes to Olivia on behalf of Orsino, Olivia falls in love with her. The characters are rounded out with Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria, and her drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch, as well as her pompous, self-loving steard, Malvolio, and Sir Toby’s witless companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. There four provide comic relief as the lovers eventually sort themselves out: Viola reveals herself as a woman, Orsino realizes he loves her. Sebastian and Olivia also marry.
“Twelfth Night” is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s most music-filled plays, and many of the play’s songs (or at least their lyrics) will be familiar to the audience. In Princeton Rep’s production, composer (and sound designer) Adam Gwon has reset these famous texts in a manner intended to evoke ’60s rock music. Feste, the wise clown (Marty Keiser) — a marked contrast to the gentlemanly but foolish Aguecheek, played by Princeton Rep veteran Ehren Ziegler — carries a guitar (in a case that suggests Feste has traveled widely) and performs frequently, sometimes with his guitar, sometimes with a pre-recorded band.
The cast consists of both Equity and non-Equity actors. Most of them were adept at sounding colloquial while maintaining Shakespeare’s rhythms. That ability is particularly important for “Twelfth Night,” in which so many of the lines are among Shakespeare’s most familiar — “If music be the food of love…,” and “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Donald Kimmel, as Malvolio, is a veteran of four Princeton Rep Shakespeare productions; Katie Northlich, as Maria, who specializes in solo performances, has also performed with Princeton Rep before.
Courtney Munch skillfully embraced the role of Viola, who must masquerade as a boy for almost the entire play. Amy Bradshaw, the costume designer, must be given credit for choosing a costume and hair style that made it totally plausible that Viola would be mistaken for Sebastian and vice versa. Kenneth Cavett as Sir Toby Belch was adept at avoiding too obvious a portrayal of the drunken gentleman. In the beginning Eric Alperin’s love-sick Orsini seemed given to striking pre-Raphaelite poses, but as the play progressed he seemed to return with the rest to the 1960s. Vivia Font was a perky Olivia, and Sebastian is played by Michael Benjamin.
The use of prerecorded musical accompaniment may be standard for musicals these days, but it does often result in the audience losing direct contact with the singer, particularly if the singer is miked along with the recording. Audiences become used to hearing a sound coming from a particular person in a particular place on the stage, and when that connection is obscured, a vital part of our experience of theater is lost. (With fancy equipment one can apparently minimize the fundamental difficulty and let the actors maintain some sense of location, but even a no-expense-spared production like McCarter’s recent “Midsummer Night’s Dream” can be compromised by this problem.) Unfortunately, the miking of Feste’s songs made him lose contact with the audience from time to time. Is it necessary to mike at all? Traffic noise from Route 206 doesn’t seem intrusive enough to require it.
Vicky Liberatori’s intelligent direction allows the play to proceed as smoothly and comprehensibly as a play with so many tricks and traps can proceed. The set is attractively decorated, with enough nautical items (oars, lines, what looks like a Boston whaler, and a dock) to remind us what precipitated the confusion and the action. And the design allows the action to move smoothly.
There is a special pleasure in watching a play performed outdoors, but perhaps our sense of time changes when we’re outdoors — there was attrition in the audience the night I was there, and the one comment I overheard was “too long, too long.” However, those more accustomed to seeing Shakespeare are likely to be used to the typical length of the Bard’s plays.
Princeton Rep encourages its audiences to picnic before the show, and although there is no admission charge, the company is happy to receive contributions from the audience. The company has not had the best luck with the weather this season (“the rain, it raineth every day”). One can only hope that the rain holds off for the rest of the run because I think Princeton Rep’s “Twelfth Night” should be fun for veteran and novice theatergoers alike.
Twelfth Night, Thursdays through Sundays, through August 27, 8 p.m., Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater. Shakespeare’s comedy. Free, donations invited. 609-921-3682