By Jim Fitzmorris | The New Orleans Advocate
Holding a candle, an emotionally pinched grump in a nightcap and gown opposes merriment and seasonal celebration.
An expansive man with a beard chortles and bellows while bringing mirth and mischief to all with whom he comes into contact. And young lovers exchange gifts only to discover their efforts are misplaced.
But it’s not Scrooge, Santa or O Henry’s married couple.
It’s the NOLA Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and it is an early yuletide gift for lovers of the Bard across the city.
Under the direction of A.J. Allegra, the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Great Hall comes sparkling to life with Joan Long’s magical wintry lighting design illuminating the great dramatist’s tale of seasonal mood disorder thawed by love.
Costumed with gorgeous fairytale simplicity by Julie Winn, this “Twelfth Night” features an ensemble of broad-stroke performances that will have you laughing at one moment and sentimentally touched the next.
Framed as both a bedtime story and a medieval tapestry, Allegra’s production unfolds as a children’s pop-up book with actors emerging from behind stair railings, balconies and columns to tell the Illyria adventure of the shipwrecked heroine Viola.
Played with frazzled pluck by Kristen Witterschein, Viola, disguised as servant boy Cesario, places herself in the employ of James Bartelle’s amiably self-important Duke Orsino and attempts to woo the mourning Olivia, a ridiculously sublime Cecile Monteyne, on behalf of her master.
One problem … It isn’t Orsino for whom Olivia falls.
And that’s only one of the many plots that play through the exuberant, boisterous evening.
There’s an edgily bloviating Jared Gore and foppishly clueless Sam Dudley as the comically matched duo Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Both manage to secure character driven laughs over obvious pratfalls and provide a rowdy counterpoint to Keith Claverie’s stern officious butler Malvolio.
Claverie, who has grown by leaps and bounds as an actor over the previous year, would dominate a lesser production with a performance that walks the necessary line between supercilious and malicious.
Aided by some highly imaginative staging from Allegra and set designer Torey Hayward, the young actor becomes a Grinch of sorts at the play’s midpoint with a deliciously meanspirited fantasy of what Malvolio would be like as the master of Olivia’s home.
I have always believed the measure of truly good Shakespeare resides in the support the leads are given from their larger cast. Joel Derby’s Andy Hardy version of Sebastian, Levi Hood’s hustling Fabian, Kurt Owens’ romantic pirate, and Danielle Doyen’s His-Girl-Friday Maria all give performances proving they could handle a lot more responsibility in another show.
And I would be remiss if I failed to mention supernumeraries Marion Strauss, Emily Bagwill and Knox Van Horn, who each make an impression in the smallest of moments.
I have saved Jake Bartush as the clown Feste for last, because I think his performance neatly wraps all the elements of what is right about this production into a lovely bow.
Biting in mood and whimsical in movement, Bartush’s fool is sharp of tongue and generous of spirit. Watch him roll his eyes at the foibles of various characters.
You will notice it is always done with a deep affection for almost all the objects of his ridicule.
In short, from his lovely voice to his expert timing, he achieves Allegra’s goal of finding both moods contained within the text.
Like your first present on Christmas morning, the collaboration between the production and the performances creates a magical effect that seems to glow from within.
I questioned some of the cuts, thought the darker edges glossed over a tad, and felt the end a bit rushed.
However, the overwhelming energy of goodwill, polish and the sense that the theater company seemed intent on giving its patrons an evening filled with tidings of comfort and joy made those quibbles an afterthought.
After 10 years of working together, the NOLA Project’s done that which has eluded theatrical companies for decades in this city: created a distinctive style for presenting Shakespeare’s works.
It is a muscular one, laughing conspiratorially with love, relishing language with a wisp of self-awareness and bustling like one of Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.