As if love weren’t already complicated enough, Shakespeare decided to add another element to it in his comedic romance Twelfth Night, an element that has been imitated in countless stories in the 400 years since the play was written: mistaken identity. The theme is ripe for lively humour, and Hart House’s production shows why the play, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, has held up so well over time.
Twelfth Night follows the spunky Viola (Darcy Gerhart), who finds herself alone in the land of Illyria after a shipwreck strands her on its shores. Disguising herself as a man and calling herself “Cesario”, she finds work with Duke Orsino (Liam Volke), who tasks her with wooing the grieving Lady Olivia (Arlin Dixon) on his behalf. Viola/Cesario ends up falling for Orsino, and in turn, Olivia (not knowing that Cesario is actually a young woman) falls in love with Cesario. Complicating things even further is the eventual arrival of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Will King), whom she believes was killed in the shipwreck, and who looks nearly identical to Cesario.
With all of the confusion, deception, and mistaken identity swirling around the relatively large cast of Twelfth Night, the play could easily descend into incomprehensible farce. But while there are a few scenes in Hart House’s production that don’t hit quite as sharply as intended, there are far more that do. For example, the moment where Viola/Cesario is forced to duel with the prim Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Christopher Manousos) could have been a throwaway moment designed simply to show off some fight choreography, but both actors have a true knack for physical comedy and watching their characters helplessly muddle through a duel that neither of them is prepared for proves hilarious.
Scott Farley also provides a number of laugh-out-loud moments, stealing every scene he’s in as the snivelling and petulant Malvolio. He commits to making his character as ridiculous as possible, and while he occasionally walks a fine line between entertainment and self-indulgence, Farley’s bold comedic choices ultimately pay off in a big way.
Also demonstrating natural comedic skill is Volke, who delivered a stunning performance in last season’s far more dramatic production of Bent. Here, he turns in a delightfully loose performance in this small but crucial role. He even provided a moment of unplanned comedy on opening night when one of the fake stained glass windows fell off the set’s door as he entered. He took the small mishap in stride, garnering laughter from the crowd with his silent, semi-in-character reaction.
Aside from that minor structural problem, the set for Twelfth Night is extremely effective. For this production, director Matthew Gorman decided to set the entire play over the course of one night, rather than its original multi-month timeframe. All of the debauchery and deception takes place in a pub called the Elephant, which creates a greater sense of urgency. Set and costume designer Jenna McCutchen created a timeless, detailed backdrop for all the drama. From the meticulously painted wood grain to the intricate series of doors, stairs, and ladders, the set feels like a homey local establishment you wouldn’t mind spending some time in.
Hart House’s production of Twelfth Night captures the fun of Shakespeare’s original text while managing to make it fully relatable to today’s audiences, thanks in part to the more modern songs sprinkled throughout the play. The large supporting cast’s command of Shakespearian dialogue is hit or miss, but everyone’s love of the material is apparent, making Twelfth Night a spirited and high-energy take on a classic comedy.
Twelfth Night runs until November 23 at Hart House Theatre. Visit harthouse.ca for more information and to purchase tickets.