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She's The Man

Yet Another Dependable Production From The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival

FLASK ANY GIRL: Kathryn Falcone and Tony Tsendeas have a laugh.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/2/2008

Watch out for the strolling, stumbling performers of Twelfth Night meandering through the Evergreen House meadow to the stage when this Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production starts up. The entire cast enters from so far offstage it might as well be called a parking lot, and the first sight of this motley bunch--a few well-dressed young men with instruments, a colorfully attired man playing clarinet, a man in derby and tails, women looking radiant in lovely evening dresses, a man in a crisp butler's uniform, somebody inexplicably carrying an umbrella--makes you long to attend whatever smashing party they just left. A bleary 4 a.m. instrumental plays over the house speakers, and with the Gilded Age mansion just up the hill from where you sit, you feel like you've wandered into a surreal F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or a Jazz Age Fellini processional.

If only the entire production maintained such a woozy sense of adventure. That it doesn't isn't a knock, for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival winningly mounts another of the Bard's endearingly durable comedies for one of its summer productions. But the mood-setting intro, which makes you suspect the cast decided to launch the production after first bonding over 40 bottles of Champagne, would have been a nice change of pace for a storyline last seen in pop culture in a movie starring Amanda Bynes.

This comedy is durable for a reason, though. Brother and sister Viola (Molly Moores) and Sebastian (Jonathan Lee Taylor) are separated at sea, each believing the other is dead. They both eventually land at Illyria, where the beautiful Olivia (Erin Sloan) mourns for her dead brother, Orsino (Nick Vienna) pines for Olivia, Olivia's steward Malvolio (Dana Whipkey) carries a not-so-secret torch for his mistress, and Olivia's uncle Toby (Tony Tsendeas) drinks any potent potable available and schemes with Olivia's servants Fabian (Chris Graybill), Maria (Kathryn Falcone), and the house's verbally adroit fool, Feste (Stephen Patrick Martin).

Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario to enter Orsino's entourage, and is entrusted to messenger Orsino's declarations of love to and from Olivia. Cesario/Viola starts to fall for Orsino, Olivia starts to fall for this unusual man named Cesario, and once Sebastian starts popping up in Illyria, one of Shakespeare's familiarly concatenating chains of comic mistaken identity unwinds.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's more self-aware plays, making the BSF's staging it in some possibly 1920s or teens setting entertainingly apt. Potential Olivia suitor Andrew Aguecheek is clad in what resembles a British officer uniform circa World War I, a time when writers throughout Europe were experimenting with the very tools of storytelling, further making the play's frequent asides and admissions to its theatricality and performative aspects ticklish in-jokes. It also helps that Tsendeas' plays Sir Toby as if Kingsley Amis trapped in a Wodehouse novel. Clad in a pink shirt and purple pants, Tsendeas' Toby is the play's comedic gem, if only because he gets many of the best lines and most of the Monty Python-silly scenes.

Aiding Tsendeas in pushing this Twelfth Night into the absurd is Martin's Feste and Whipkey's Malvolio, who are almost as exaggerated with their performances. Feste is the play's nonsensical sane man in an otherwise topsy-turvy world, and Martin's ability to juggle a contemporary cheekiness with the affected iambic pentameter invests Feste's impish word games with a knowing flair. And Whipkey is shy only a sinister moustache to twirl in his cartoonish version of this misguided servant, who dons a golfer's knickers and hat after the play's intermission in one of the great visual jokes the production serves up. You almost wish it were colder outside, just so that Malvolio could bust out the beaver coat you know he has in his wardrobe.

Director Laura Hackman does manage to instill this production with a whiff of after-party intoxication. Actors and actresses exit the stage and disappear into to woods. Music peppers the story here and there. And by the time all the childish cons and clumsy miscommunication gets ironed out, the entire cast piles back onstage to accept the audience applause and then trundle back through the crowd, instruments and umbrella and all. They look a little more spent from the two hours and change they just put in, but you're also more than a little curious about what sort of mischief they'll get up to wherever they next end up en masse.

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