The main plot lines of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” — currently being presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison — have to do with the twins Viola and Sebastian and their respective marriages to Duke Orsino and Olivia. The twins are separated by a shipwreck at the start of the play and are later reunited with each other, with a lot of mistaken-identity complications along the way.
So it came as a bit of a surprise that at the Dec. 9 production I attended, the two final bows of the night went to Cedric Lamar, who played the fool Feste, and Robert Cuccioli, who played Olivia’s supercilious steward Malvolio.
These are not leading roles in “Twelfth Night.” But Feste’s music, composed for this production by Lamar and performed by him in many different scenes, was the glue the held the production together. And the Tony-nominated (for “Jekyll and Hyde”) Cuccioli is the cast’s most famous actor, and Malvolio one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic creations: A humorless man made to look ridiculous when he is led to believe that the rich, beautiful Olivia is in love with him.
“Twelfth Night,” of course, has a lot of great parts. There are 14 actors in this production, which is directed by Jason King Jones; most are well known to Shakespeare Theatre of NJ patrons, and most had at least one memorable scene.
Billie Wyatt — who has become a dependable standout in a variety of STNJ roles over the last few years — plays Olivia, who ends her protracted period of mourning (for a deceased brother) when she meets, and is almost immediately attracted to, Viola, played by Eliana Rowe.
Viola has disguised herself as a man, Cesario, who finds employment as a servant to Duke Orsino (Jon Barker), a gentle and poetic soul. (Orsino is the one who utters the play’s famous first line, “If music be the food of love, play on.”)
Viola falls in love with Orsino, who is not aware that she is a woman and is blind to her affection, anyway, since he is suffering through the agony of being in unrequited love with Olivia.
Olivia eventually transfers her love to Sebastian (Jeffrey Marc Alkins), not being able, at first, to tell him and Viola (pretending, remember, to be Cesario) apart. Sebastian is absent for much of the play and quite pleased when, from his perspective, Olivia falls in love with him as soon as she meets him. Viola, dropping her pretense of being a man, is freed to live happily ever after with Orsino.
Malvolio’s downfall is plotted and flawlessly executed by Olivia’s frequently drunk and always irreverent uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Jeffrey M. Bender), and his goofball friend, Andrew Aguecheek (Patrick Toon), along with Belch’s love interest and eventual wife, Olivia’s wickedly witty servant Maria (Tarah Flanagan).
(This being a Shakespearean comedy, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the play ends with a bunch of marriages.)
Set designer Brittany Vasta creates a cream-colored, fairy-tale castle, with multiple levels for characters to move around in and plenty of places for them to hide (since they do, sometimes, spy on each other). Costume designer Hugh Hanson provides suitable glamor for Olivia and Orsino’s outfits and has a lot of fun with the comedic characters’ clothes, giving Belch a chaotically clashing plaid-and-diamonds outfit; the immature Aguecheek a jacket, tie and high socks that make him look like a schoolboy; and Feste an eccentric conglomeration of fur, buckles and swirling color.
This production, which concludes the 60th anniversary season of the Shakespeare Theatre, is not as daringly unconventional as the “Twelfth Night” that was presented in early 2020 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank was. But new twists aren’t always necessary for a crowd-pleaser like “Twelfth Night,” and the more straightforward take that Jones and his stellar cast offer was just as satisfying.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “Twelfth Night” at its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison through Jan. 1. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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