Editor’s Note: Fenix Theatre Company canceled the remaining performances of “Twelfth Night” on Wednesday, Dec. 15, after a cast member tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement on its website, the company said past audience members were notified and there was no evidence of transmission from the cast to the audience.
Fenix Theatre Company’s new production of “Twelfth Night” kicks off with Feste (the inimitably big-hearted James Patefield) jovially crooning his way through the house aisles, singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in a knit sash, leg warmers, and a mile-wide smile.
He’s like the court clown crossed with the Ghost of Christmas Past and Andy Williams.
And this entrance vibe perfectly sets the tone for the Shakespeare classic, which director Peter Brown has deftly retooled as a hoot of a holiday show – and a holiday musical, no less, with a giddily wide-ranging modern song list and a live band. The very spirited, very fun, exquisitely cast comedy runs through Dec. 18 at the spacious auditorium of the Stevens Square Community Center.
Despite having seen this play produced approximately a million times, I’ve honestly never thought a whole lot about the night of its title. But it does, after all, refer to the 12th night of the yuletide holiday (à la “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). And amping up the play’s holiday context turns out to be a big win.
Fenix’s holiday “Twelfth Night” offers a nuanced take on what the holiday can hold: not just the carols and the presents, but the melancholy and the lonely hearts, the booze-fueled messing with other people in the house who annoy you, and, eventually, the hard-won love that everyone deserves.
The show is also a Christmas miracle of festive and sumptuously color-coordinated scintillation. Everything and everyone glitters. In Brown’s set design, shiny ornaments hang from the rafters, the stage is strung with tinsel, and upstage stands a huge white Christmas tree made of boxed presents, lit with cobalt blue and festooned with shimmery aquamarine ribbons.
And I could spend this entire review describing how good everyone looks in Michelle Handley’s costumes. We first meet sensual, lovesick Orsino (Ben Row) in a pale blue tunic and creamy silk sleeves, singing “Blue Christmas” in longing for Countess Olivia (Kat Moraros), who herself is pale and imperious in floor-length black velvet, a silvery gown, and a huge rock on her finger.
The ensemble is not only a gorgeously appointed ensemble but also wondrously cast.
The most comically delicious pairing is that of the drunken dynamic duo: Sir Toby Belch, played by Christopher Holt with a huge beard, a lumbering stride, and exuberant slurring, and Sir Andrew, played by an elfin and ingenuous Nolan Ellsworth. Both are consummate actors, and their physical comedy of contrasts – Ellsworth’s trim nimbleness against Holt’s bearish galumphing – is a true treat. They’re alternately corralled and egged on by the exquisite exasperation of Lisa Boucher Hartman’s Maria, while Patefield’s Feste pulls out all the stops as fool and emcee, huge of lungs and even huger of heart.
Other beautifully cast pairings comprise the gender-bendy love triangle of Viola (Casey Turner), in drag as “Cesario,” with Olivia and Orsino. The first scene between “Cesario” and Orsino involves lounging, massages, and a pillow fight, Orsino languishing sensually, Viola swiftly melting for him with an ever more luminous grin.
As Olivia, Moraros initially conveys an immaculate haughtiness, but once Viola/Cesario enters the picture, Olivia proceeds with her own melting. Their initial meeting, too, is beautifully staged: as Turner’s feisty, sunny Viola speaks to Maria, thinking her the lady of the house, Olivia watches “him,” her face softening by the second. A lovely charged moment catches Olivia’s libidinous glance at “Cesario’s” hand lightly resting on the hilt of his sword. And in no time, Olivia is gushing, simpering, and giggling with shameless mellifluousness.
Amidst all this love and drinking, the odd one out is of course Malvolio – and here again Brown achieves pitch-perfect casting. In Sean Ramey’s hands and bald skull, the sententious killjoy has a sanctimoniously furrowed brow, dour hollow eyes, and ever-pursed lips – all made all the more alarming once he’s smiling all over the place for Olivia.
If music be the food of love, this show’s amorous foibles are fed on a richly varied diet. The band (Kyle Aarons, Mason Hawkes, Sam Rapaport, and David Register) performs on upright bass, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, an adorably tiny xylophone, and even a melodica. The songs are smartly chosen, wide-ranging in genre and mood, and so much fun to discover in the moment that I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say that the story’s soundtrack moves gamely from cheesy holiday classics to classical guitar to classic rock, with some achingly beautiful ballads and even a barbershop quartet. Not every singer’s voice is Broadway-ready, but the polish is less the point here than fun, and many voices do soar to the rafters.
Another pleasure here is that amidst its over-the-topness, this “Twelfth Night” is full of sneaky little in-jokes and allusions. Remember how Maria and all hide in a “boxtree” as they abuse Malvolio? And what the heck is a boxtree? Well, Fenix has made it gloriously literal. And perhaps the show’s most brilliant moment is a beautiful and fleeting homage, via Ellsworth’s dejected Sir Andrew, to “The Peanuts’ Christmas Special.”
Fenix’s “Twelfth Night” might even be said to convey some cautionary tales for the holidays as we anticipate family reunions, warnings about drinking too much and regressing with one’s peers (or siblings), about being a narcissistic Grinch like Malvolio, or even about being too much of a dick to a narcissistic Grinch like Malvolio.
Because as you’ll recall, the original Grinch – just like Mr. Scrooge – ultimately gets a second chance. And if you’ve ever half-lamented Maria and all’s actually pretty dickish abuse of Malvolio, you’ll be pleased at the Christmas love and forgiveness with which this “Twelfth Night” smooths all that over.
This, too, is in keeping with the show’s overall tone: along with the glitter and giddy good cheer comes, eventually, goodwill for all. In the truest spirit of this season of lights, Fenix’s “Twelfth Night” sparkles and shines.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.