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Review: A full-hearted outdoor staging of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' at St. Edward's University

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Rebekah Grace Mason as Olivia in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," staged outdoors at St. Edward's University.

Muffled medical masking might seem antithetical to the performance of a play by William Shakespeare, who created whole worlds with spoken words. Yet a staging of the playwright's "Twelfth Night" outdoors on the St. Edward's University campus proved that this romantic comedy loses none of its charm, clarity or cleverness, even masked.

After all, ancient Greek actors wore full facial masks, some outfitted with little megaphones. Two thousand years later, Italian commedia players donned half masks that emphasized of the durability of the form's stock characters. And many other performance traditions around the world depend on the cloaked practice of masking.

It quickly became clear in director Ben Wolfe's version of "Twelfth Night," set on a low rise next to a burly brick building near St. Ed's theater, that masks would be no encumbrance, especially given the actors' personal microphones and the overall exactness of Wolfe's storytelling. It helped that he framed this comedy of veils and disguises — as well as assumed or mistaken identities — like a Mack Sennett silent movie, so that the show was punctuated by title cards, recorded music and adept sound effects.

Susan Branch Towne's graceful costumes, supported by Tara Cooper's ingenious hair and makeup, softened Rebecca Wright's minimal, marine-inspired scenery, so wisely placed on the hillside. I especially liked the openness of the staging, which allowed the audience to see actors approaching from a distance in character, plus some of the undisguised backstage business.

The plot? A shipwreck. Two noble houses bedeviled by personal melancholy and misunderstanding as well as by mischief among the "lighter folk." A split-up set of twins addle the existing equation.

Although at times reaching a bit too eagerly for comedic effect, the lovers lent the show its enduring humanity, while fleshing out some of its most lyrical lines. These roles were dispatched with warmth and dignity by Che Greeno, Victoria Borgstedte, Rebekah Grace Mason, John Ferraro and, especially, John Mascorro, who played the oft-forgotten Antonio, whose "desire, more sharp than filed steel" for Sebastian was given its passionate due.

The comic "lighter folk" actually end up with the harder job. How to keep the story going without giving in to sheer farce? Francesca Leighton, Coleman Hahn, Andrew Mueller, Jamie Perez and, particularly, Lucia McMahon-Moreno as the "allowed fool," stayed nimble, alert and amusing throughout.

Shakespeare's great invention in "Twelfth Night" is Malvolio, the countess' proud servant and advisor, rendered here deftly as a woman, Malvolia. Madison Taylor Jones sets a profoundly self-important tone, physically and vocally. Mocked, tricked and humiliated, Jones as Malvolia emerges in the famous "yellow stockings and cross garters" scene like a sex kitten crossed with a somber curate. I've enjoyed this scene in at least two dozen previous versions of "Twelfth Night" and have never found it more hilarious, especially since Jones plays it for its worth and directly to the audience.

I am grateful for this "Twelfth Night," the first full play I've attended during the pandemic. Out of the blue, I wept openly when the lovers untangled their webs of deceit and misunderstanding. But I also noted the looks on the faces of the characters left single — Antonio, Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolia, Feste — who did not end up as part of a couple. 

That's the real test of Shakespeare's empathy. This cast passed it with flying colors.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

'Twelfth Night'

7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through April 15 at St. Edward's University campus under pandemic protocols. 512-448-8484, stedwards.edu/mary-moody-northen-theatre.