Seattle Shakespeare Company has put together one of the best performances of the Bard’s inventory that I have ever seen. Twelfth Night, or As You Will is absolutely fantastic. In fact, it is likely only second to their own production of The Taming of the Shrew. (Set in a Texas trailer park, that play was so good it is unfair to use it as a yardstick for anything shy of Biblical revelation.)
The festivities began with the actors caroling, leading us in song, (cleverly, we were set up as a punch line for later in the performance) and a drama class warm up exercise that eased us all into a comfortable matinee. While Wikipedia assures me that this is a standard pre-play tactic used by Twelfth Night directors across the fruited plain, I had never seen it done before and even managed to enjoy it.
The improbable fiction then unfolded before us with Viola’s eerie entrance and we were off and running. Several items throughout the production need to be highlighted. Visually, the best moment was the very close of the first act. Curio and Valentine, played by Sean Patrick Taylor and Carter Rodriquez, have a ‘dueling banjos’ face off with the guitars that they had been plucking on throughout the afternoon. When they reached the crescendo of their duel, they both looked up at the stage lights and blew them out, with a little help from a perfectly timed fader in the tech booth.
The surprise of the day had to come from John Bogar’s completely over the top portrayal of Malvolio, whose stodgy and proper ways crumble to reveal the lunacy of true love. It is a joy to watch an actor so give himself over to a role that all shame and self consciousness disappear like the thin vapor of decorum that we each cling to, fearing one great gust of wind to reveal us for what we are. Not only that, but his operatic singing voice was staggeringly good. I mean breath takingly, room shakingly, Simon Cowell can kiss my buttingly good. Other notables included the Fool, played by Chris Ensweiler as a mish-mash of Jew and gypsy and Bohemian Port Townsend street peddler, who, as is always the case, was the wisest one on stage. His rendition of ‘heigh-ho, the wind and the rain’ began to delve into theatrical magic to end the show. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, played to comedic perfection by Ray Gonzalez and Darragh Kennan, were some of the best drunken sots I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve been 22 years in the Marine Corps. I’ve seen some drunken sots.)
The funniest part of the play came from the sword fight between Viola and Sir Andrew. Each character, convinced that the other is a master swordsman whereas they need simple direction like ‘Front Toward Enemy’ to even pick up a blade, face each other with a hesitancy that is drawn out to its full effect… and then one step beyond. Curio, who was lurking, just visible, behind the set would wait for them to raise steel and then dramatically strum on his guitar like the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Each time he did it the characters would pause and crane their necks to figure out where the music was coming from. Comedy gold.
But the best thing about the performance, by far and away, without question or debate, was Susannah Millonzi. She played Viola with a deftness and subtlety that leave me searching for words I don’t often use, like ‘enchanted’ and ‘enraptured.’ (Like I said, I’ve been 22 years in the Marine Corps. I don’t get enchanted a whole lot.) Her believability came through in every quirk of the eyebrow, every twitch of the fingertip, and every slip of the smile that went from adoration to despair to resolution in the same fleeting instant. It was as if no filter existed between mind and body and she had absorbed Viola’s cause as her own. Whether it was comedy, as in the above crossing of swords, or passion, as she looked upon the unaware Duke Orsino, she was quite simply captivating, in every physical and spiritual aspect that word can be used in. As a matter of fact, she played this part so perfectly that she must forevermore stand like Alexander on the Asian seacoast, weeping for there are no more worlds to conquer.
This is the best Shakespeare you can see on the entire West Coast. (And I can say that because I’ve been to Ashland.) Seattle Shakespeare Company in general, and this production in particular, gets my highest possible rating, given only to those few, those happy few, who over the years have impressed me beyond my already high expectations: They know what the hell they’re doing.