From the earliest days of the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) in the 1970s, its founder and director Bob Colonna has been one of the state's keenest and cleverest interpreters of the Bard. Colonna zooms in on the naughty nuances, the multiple meanings, and the contemporary connections in Shakespeare's words. And that almost always makes TRIST productions both innovative and entertaining, as is the case with Twelfth Night, at Roots Cultural Center March 1-3 and 9-10.
One of the stage areas at Roots, with an L-shaped balcony above, a staircase to its side, and one door in the back wall, provides an adaptable set for this Twelfth Night. Colonna and crew use the space in creative ways, especially the banister on which to lean or climb and the aisle through the audience for entrances and exits, most notably one character coasting in on a small bicycle and another driving a motorized wheelchair.
The entire cast parades in to a chorus of "All You Need Is Love," complete with horn accompaniment, only to scatter in all directions, shouting "shipwreck," which catapults us into Shakespeare's plot. Viola survives the wreck, landing in the fictional seaport of Illyria (her twin brother Sebastian is initially believed to have drowned). She disguises herself as a young man and becomes a courtier to Duke Orsino, who fancies himself lovesick over Olivia and sends Viola to plead his case. Viola falls for Orsino and Olivia for Viola's masculine incarnation. That story.
Kaitlyn Ann Vollucci is captivating as Viola, her large brown eyes registering surprise, amusement, cunning, and infatuation. She has an easy naturalness onstage, which is matched by some of the actors around her, though not all.
As she preens and postures, Bonnie Griffin does Olivia's overblown melancholy and exaggerated self-centeredness quite well. Patrick Keeffe struggles to convey some of those same attitudes as Orsino. Linda Kamajian, however, is spot-on as Olivia's right-hand woman, warning Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle, to curb his excesses, but later plotting with him and his cohorts to deceive Malvolio, Olivia's steward.
Frank Toti as Malvolio and Colonna as Sir Toby are perhaps the most seasoned of the cast. Toti holds himself stiffly, in a suit jacket with every button done up, and he almost literally has his nose in the air. His unsmiling visage is transformed upon reading a letter he believes to be from Olivia, in which she tells him how much she loves his yellow socks and seeing him "cross-gartered." His re-appearance — in a bright yellow sweatshirt to match the knee socks, his long shorts baggy enough to display his Superman underwear, his cap turned backward — is quite hilarious, and Toti makes the most of Malvolio's changed manner as well as his outfit.
Colonna has great fun with Sir Toby: the punning quips, the lewd allusions, the hand gestures and stances that enhance his lines. He even swings into a Southern evangelist voice, with a white Bible in his hands, when everyone treats the "new" Malvolio as if he were mad or Satan-possessed.