APT FOR MODERNIZATION The Bard's work.
In the Theater at Monmouth's Twelfth Night, the Bard's gender-bending foibles play out in a proscenium within a proscenium — or, more strictly speaking, a sound stage within a proscenium:
Shakespeare's most trickily witty Fool, Feste (Paul L. Coffey), wanders onto a set in "Illyria Studios" circa the 1920s or '30s. He's smartly Buster Keaton-ed out in vest, shirt-sleeves, and hat, and proceeds to fiddle with the wind machine, heft a stage foil, mime, and mumble director-speak through the bullhorn. Suddenly, there ensues a swashbuckling comic overture, an action-packed preview of the show's dramatis personae complete with big-stringed orchestration, dramatic poses, and tongue-in-cheek sound effects (I particularly liked the bubbly gurgle as chiffon drained down the trapdoor). The movies lend Twelfth Night special whimsy in Monmouth's effervescent production, in repertory through August 22 under the direction of Janis Stevens.
The show's Golden Age of Film setting must have been a particular treat for costume designer Jonna Klaiber. Besides Feste's Buster-y duds, we have the love-anguished duke Orsino (Dan Olmstead) in a The Sheik-ish turban and sash and a Clark Gable pencil-'stache. The unmoved object of his affections, lady Olivia (Jennifer Weinreich) wears midnight purple velvet and dark, shimmering lace; with fair skin, dark hair and eyebrows, and rouged lips, hers is a visage of classic diva loveliness. As her pompous butler Malvolio, Mark S. Cartier is as stoic as Erich Von Stroheim's butler in Sunset Boulevard, and even more immaculate, in white gloves and bowler — at least until he's been roundly maligned by the drunken debauchery of Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Bill Van Horn), and his sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dennis A. Price).
The shenanigans of those two scoundrels raucously channel vaudeville's influence on early film. Sir Toby is crude, gruff, and Mad Hatter-ish in top hat, big buttons, and hounds-tooth (and red enough of nose that we'll hope it's painted on), while the more puffily-witted Sir Andrew is soft, effete, and serene in canary yellow and a straw hat. It's the perfect set-up for some inebriated buddy routines, and so we have them, replete with hats, canes, soft-shoe, and high kicks.
Stevens and her production crew wisely go lightly on overt treatments of the movie motif — with only the occasional sound of film rolling, a tableau back-lit by a green screen, a rhymed-couplet exit flourished with cinematic strings. But the subtler nuances between characters often have the vibrato intimacy of a close-up: See Olivia fall in love with the disguised-as-a-man Viola (the lovely and robust Alecia White), all heart-flit and lilt; watch as Viola breathlessly lathers, shaves, and towels her own secret love Orsino, risking every extra instant her hand might remain against his throat. Kathleen L. Nation could use a little more snap and sex in her Mae West-y Maria, Olivia's deliciously witty maid, but aside from that this is a show of consummate comic performances, fleetly paced, and flung with zingers.