As the son of two English majors (one a current English teacher), I doubt I’ve gone twenty-four hours at home without hearing a reference to the man himself, William Shakespeare. I’m quite sure that won’t be changing any time soon, thanks to the Quill Theatre’s production of the Bard’s gender-bending classic Twelfth Night, which we had the pleasure of seeing on opening night of The Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall.
The performance entertained a packed house from start to finish on a night that felt quintessentially Richmond. A crowd of all ages enjoyed Shakespeare, along with just the right amount of humidity, the threat of rain (which thankfully held off), and the distant booms of fireworks at the Diamond.
Director Steve Perigard made artful use of a true ensemble cast, keeping the audience on its toes throughout the play. There was no telling where the next laugh would come from as the actors nimbly passed around the spotlight.
The mischievous crew of Feste (Luke Schares), Sir Toby Belch (David Janosik), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Evan Nasteff), Maria (Elisabeth Ashby), and Fabian (Jonathan Conyers) led the comical charge, making use of the simple but dynamic set and the laps of audience members to carry out their hilarious schemes. The Three-Stooges-esque enactment left the audience in a position not unlike that of the hapless Aguecheek, a step behind the others, but loving every minute of witty banter.
Often a victim of those schemes, Malvolio, who transitions from the most unlikeable character to the most pitiable and even sympathetic one, was played to a T by Thomas Cunningham, who drew laughs, gasps, and awwwws from the audience over the course of a dynamic performance encapsulated by his prancing, gaudily-clad attempt at seducing his lady Olivia, played by Liz Blake White.
The plot-driving love triangle between Olivia, Orsino, and Cesario/Viola was compellingly brought to life by White, Jeremy Morris, and Laura Rocklyn, respectively. Morris’s booming vows of unrequited love and White’s constant romantic follies set a backdrop for Rocklyn’s female character dressed as a young man, a role she carried out beautifully: occasionally falling into more feminine tendencies before comically catching herself, straightening her jacket and lowering her voice an octave or two.
The performance was surprisingly easy to follow for such a complicated play, due in large part to careful staging and the cast’s mastery of facial expressions, both of which heightened the sense of engagement with the audience and often brought laughs even without the help of dialogue. From Mark Caudle’s (playing Sebastian) happy disbelief upon finding Olivia madly in love with him as a result of mistaken identity, to the cast’s self-aware amusement at the breaking of the fourth wall, the entire performance felt incredibly natural.
I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare with my parents and I’d hardly say we’re an easy crowd to please, but each of us found Quill’s Twelfth Night wonderfully entertaining and well-done. And you could hardly ask for a better venue than the outdoor courtyard of a transplanted fifteenth-century English manor house. Whether you’re a Shakespeare veteran like my parents or not, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Twelfth Night runs through June 26 as part of The Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall. For information about tickets and showtimes, visit Quill Theatre.