Elements Theatre shines in ‘Twelfth Night’

By Cindy Nickerson, Cape Cod Times

Illyria rhymes with “deliria.” Was Shakespeare possibly thinking just that when he set his early comedy “Twelfth Night” (usually dated from 1601 or 1602) in this quasi mythical Mediterranean land? According to Webster’s, the word “delirium” has been around since 1590-1600, when it meant “out of one’s mind.”

Delusions of love and grandeur fuel this perennial favorite, which – under the direction of Danielle Dwyer – careens along merrily in a production by Elements Theatre Company.

Duke Orsino (Luke Norman) sets off a spinning circle of love as he obsessively pines away for the beautiful Countess Olivia (Ellen Ortolani). She, in mourning for her brother, will have no suitors. Meanwhile, a young woman named Viola (Rachel McKendree), shipwrecked off the Illyrian coast, disguises herself as a man and finds a position as a page in the duke’s household. He, knowing her as Cesario, quickly embraces her as his confidant and sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf. Eloquent in her cause – though she’s fallen in love with the duke herself – Viola only succeeds in kindling the misguided lady’s passion for her alter ego.

Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby (Brad Lussier), exemplifies the play’s slightly off-kilter spirit. Although perpetually tipsy, he’s the mastermind behind a zany subplot or two, including a ruse to deflate Olivia’s self-important steward, Malvolio. His gleeful co-conspirators are Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria (Kate Shannon); his dim-witted comrade, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Kyle Norman); and Feste (Chris Kanaga), Olivia’s not-so-foolish fool. They’re a rowdy, irreverent bunch with a most engaging chemistry – ignited, in large measure, by Lussier. He so completely inhabits Sir Toby – or perhaps it’s vice versa – that it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. (He clearly also played a helpful role as dramaturge. This classically trained company delivers lines with ease, taking mastery of the archaic language as if it’s second nature.)

But the entire cast is exceptional, with those playing secondary or even tertiary characters maintaining a lively presence. Particularly outstanding is Dwyer, who – in an unusual gender-bender – boldly takes on the role of Malvolio. She endows him with a pomposity equal only to the silliness that ensues when – thanks to a forged love letter, presumably from Olivia – he begins going about wearing a forced smile and yellow stockings. After reading the letter he pronounces, “I am happy” with a fierce determination, as if to say, “even if it kills me.” This casting is a nice touch in a play where the script already calls for a woman to play a man (although in Shakespeare’s day, it would have been a man playing a woman playing a man). McKendree conveys great sincerity and spirit as Viola/Cesario, never losing sight of her double role. Ortolani is especially wonderful – absolutely effervescent as Olivia, who quickly trades in her black mourning weeds for shimmering dresses after meeting Cesario.

Today, we might bill “Twelfth Night” as a sunny romantic comedy. The production is very “now,” tapping into the timelessness of Shakespeare’s humor and humanity as it moves along at a breezy pace.

One of the famous lines from “Twelfth Night” is: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” At the very least, Elements Theatre Company’s production flirts with greatness. And it definitely delivers on the promise of great entertainment.