The front of the set is lined with pillows on which the audience is encouraged to sit. Burning Coal uses an extremely sparse set that works extremely well, utilizing several paintings as backdrop and a series of six metal doorframes across midstage to facilitate entries and exits. Behind these, the audience sees the cast set in tableaux as the action takes place downstage.
The paintings are the work of set designer Morag Charlton, who uses her art for her eighth set created for Burning Coal. Even though some of the seven paintings that surround the set existed prior to the play’s creation, the septet magnificently complements the work, as one represents, perhaps, the enjoining of twins, or even lovers; another two paintings, set dramatically on the upstage wall along with it, could literally be the twins Viola and Sebastian, each set in a combined environment of fire and water to represent their trials.
The seven portraits lend themselves amazingly well to the interpretation presented. The time, as represented by the costumes of Kelly Farrow and the sound design of Al Singer, is the American Jazz Age. This is represented best by singer and Feste portrayer Yolanda Rabun, who sings several lovely and lively songs during the work.
The play’s director, Rebecca Holderness, has reduced the cast to a mere dozen if we don’t count the “FBI.” After their ship is wrecked at sea, Viola (Ashlee Quinones) and her brother Sebastian (Lucius Robinson) are rescued separately and brought to Elyria, Viola by a ship’s Captain (James V. Sullivan) and her brother by Antonio (Myles Scott). Antonio tells Sebastian that he is in peril here because he once fought against the Duke Orsino (C. Delton Streeter), peer of the realm.
As we know, for her own safety, Viola dresses in men’s clothes and takes the name of Cesario before she goes to work in the court of Duke Orsino as a messenger to Olivia (Jenn Suchanec), who, despite her protestations, owns Orsino’s heart. All hearts in Elyria, it seems, run to Olivia, as we learn that there are others who also wish to woo her, including Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stephen LeTrent), a truly errant knight, and her own steward, Malvolio (Ian Finley). Observing and commenting at length about these affairs are a quartet of rambunctious relatives and servants: Olivia’s boisterous cousin, Sir Toby Belch (David Dossey); Olivia’s fool, Feste (Yolanda Rabun); a groom, Fabian (Jeffrey Dillard); and her maidservant, Maria (Joan J). The FBI referred to above are two agents, complete with earpieces and dark specs Valentine (Chelsea Lee Gaddy) and Curio (Amanda Watson), who ultimately take Antonio, a “fugitive,” into custody.
Although all cast members acquit themselves well during the play, it is clear that things are livelier at Olivia’s house than they are at Orsino’s. Things are gloomy at Orsino’s and C. Delton Streeter makes us know it. Streeter’s Orsino is sharp and classy, but he is not a party man. If it were not for the fact that Olivia is grieving, she might reject this man for other reasons. He’s just not fun.
David Dossey’s Sir Toby Belch, on the other hand, is nothing but a party man. Dossey and LeTrent, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, are both fun-loving clowns, and it is Dossey and his mischief that make Olivia’s household a much lighter place than it would otherwise be. Indeed, it is Sir Toby’s overboard antics and a phony love letter ostensibly written by Olivia to Malvolio — but actually penned by Joan J’s Maria as a cruel practical joke — that cause the Olivia’s stuffy steward such grief.
When it comes to Orsino, Suchanec’s Olivia is an iceberg; but she is much warmer toward a fine figure of a youth named Cesario, Viola’s nom de guerre. Laughs are had aplenty at Olivia’s expense as well, and most particularly at her inability to tell apart Cesario and Sebastian, who, as an added laugh, dress alike but are a full foot apart in height.
Viola, for her part, is a fine servant but is secretly in love with her boss; her silly grin in his presence reveals as much. This is a fine and near-perfect ensemble, especially the mechanicals-like quartet of Belch, Maria, Fabian, and Feste, who are not at all fools but very merry people of the world.
A particular note is made here of the very fine jazz music provided by Al Singer for background and entr’acte, and the particularly sterling pipes of Yolanda Rabun, jazz singer and able portrayer of the fool at Olivia’s, the ever-clever Feste. In the opinion of this reviewer, the tunes provided by Rabun are alone worth the price of admission.
A combination of spare-but-spacious set, hilarious antics, a full understanding of the plot by director Rebecca Holderness and her cast, and the fine trappings of the new Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School, all combine to make a truly enjoyable evening of wry and slapstick humor in Burning Coal’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. Deepening the evening’s performance is fine music, art, and a superbly wrought set that makes it all work splendidly well.
For additional performances, see the CVNC theatre calendar.