Surf’s up for beach blanket Bard

By Catey Sullivan

OAK LEAVES, CHICAGO SUN TIMES

Oak Park Festival Theatre has  taken up residence sea-side for the duration of the summer,  and that’s a very good thing for audiences of the company’s Twelfth Night. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani,  William Shakespeare’s comedy is as bouncy as a beachball, a winning comedic romp that transforms duels into badminton matches and relocates late-night revels to Tiki bars. The concept works in ways both  large (instead of the traditional foliage, Joe Schermoly’s  set design is crucially complemented by a rows of surfboards and fluttering beach towels)  and small (instead of blindfolding  a rather pathetic fellow taken prisoner late in the second half, Jadhwani  has him taken prisoner with a child’s sand bucket over his head). The incidental music includes compositions by both the Beach Boys and the Bard. Emily McConnell’s costume design heavily favors Hawaiian floral prints, capri pants and (for the ladies) strappy sandals.

Yet for all of the beach-blanket-bingo trappings Jadhwani incorporates into the (roughly) 400-year-old text, the core narrative of Twelfth Night remains intact. The kitsch doesn’t over power the comedy; it adds to it.

The shenanigans start with a burst of ebullient energy as Maria (Katy Carolina Collins) leaps onto the stage and issues the clarion call of “Beach Party!”,  kicking off a groovy Watusi that sets the frolicsome mood that defines the show.  When a soaked Viola (Lucy Carapetyan) washes up surfside, we learn (from a lifeguard whose attire wouldn’t be out of place on Bay Watch) that we’re in Illyria. Viola has been separated during a storm at sea from her beloved twin brother Sebastian (Luke Daigle), and for reasons Shakespeare rather fudges, she decides to disguise herself as a boy named Cesario and go to work for the Count Orsino (Chris Ballou). Faster than a breaking wave, Viola falls in love with Orsino, who is himself  hopelessly in love with the Lady Olivia (Jhenai Mootz) who in turn, falls in love with “Cesario” not realizing that the object of her affections isn’t really a dude.  Sebastian, meanwhile,  also turns up on the beach,  accompanied by his passionately loyal greaser friend Antonio (Pat King).

_1222593723Thus is the stage set for a romp rife with mistaken identities,  romantic entanglements and – as this is a comedy – a happily-ever-after ending. Well, almost happily ever after. As the ill-used, Puritanically misguided Malvolio, Will Clinger steals every scene he’s in. Built like a Praying Mantis and gifted with killer comic instincts, the subplot misadventures  of Malvolio are a high point of the production.  Sock garters, it should be noted, as funny things in and of themselves. But sock garters plus Will Clinger and Malvolio’s preening, wholly maladroit attempts to win  Olivia’s heart? This adds up to true hilarity.

Also upping the comic ante is the perpetually drunken, dynamic duo of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (John Crosthwaite) and Sir Toby Belch (Jack Hickey),  a winning pair of buffoons who hatch alcohol-fueled antics during late nights at the Tiki bar, sucking down drinks with umbrellas, served in coconut shells. With Collins’ Maria and Bryan Wakefield’s Fabian, they make a merry band of ruffians, and create a perpetual onstage party.

As Viola/Cesario, Carpetyan is delightful, displaying a firm grasp of Shakespeare’s text and using that knowledge to make the story wholly accessible.  Mootz’ Olivia is fittingly snooty toward her kinsmen, and believably head-over-heels for “Cesario.”  And as the wise fool Feste, Scot West delivers some surprisingly poignant musical elements to the production.

Shakespeare leaves two often troublesome  loose ends  in Twelfth Night. The first is Malvolio’s decidedly unfunny exit,  wherein the cruelly humiliated, heartbroken fellow quite understandably vows revenge on all present. The second is Antonio, who – as the text makes unambiguously clear – is deeply in unrequited love with Sebastian.  The unhappy fate of these two isn’t emphasized in Festival Theatre’s staging.  And that’s just fine. The show is a party from start to finish, and audiences who show up for it will surely enjoy themselves immensely. 

Oak Park Festival Theatre’s staging of Twelfth Night continues through Aug. 24 at Austin Gardens (at the southwest intersection of Forest and Lake). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors 60 and older, $15 students with ID. For more information go to www.oakparkfestival.com or call 708/445-4440.