Banks, right, has the gift of transformative physicality.
I look forward to American Players Theatre's season every year. I know that the productions will be carefully crafted, and it's satisfying to see favorite company members in new roles -- and to see freshly recruited talent for the first time. Twelfth Night, which opened APT's outdoor season Saturday night, touched me and made me laugh.
William Shakespeare's comedy combines a dash of melancholy with a liberal dose of gender-bending, mistaken-identity mayhem. Olivia (Susan Shunk), a countess in mourning for her brother, is pursued by Orsino (Marcus Truschinski), the Duke of Illyria. Their story collides with that of Viola (Cristina Panfilio), who, rescued after a shipwreck, believes her twin brother has perished at sea. She assumes the identity of male servant Cesario and begins to work for Orsino, for whom she develops feelings. Orsino enlists Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, who falls for Cesario.
Meanwhile, Olivia's drunken uncle Sir Toby (Brian Mani) and his friend Sir Andrew (Mark Goetzinger) hatch a plan with servant Maria (Greta Wohlrabe, sexy and clever) to embarrass Olivia's servant, priggish Malvolio (La Shawn Banks). When Viola's twin Sebastian turns up, hijinks, confusion and multiple weddings ensue.
As plucky, good-natured Viola, APT newcomer Panfilio captures, with a slightly aw-shucks, awkward way, the absurdity of her situation, particularly as her feelings for Orsino deepen. Playing Cesario, Panfilio also must wrestle with the flirtations of pretty Olivia. Panfilio intones lines like "I am a gentleman" with the perfect blend of frustration, exasperation and resignation.
Brian Mani plays Toby with loutish panache, and Goetzinger brings nave, simple-minded charm to the role of Andrew. Their plot to undo Malvolio brings the show's biggest laughs. Banks' performance as Malvolio is over-the-top funny. He is fully committed to the role and has the gift of transformative physicality. Still, as much as I love the scenes of Malvolio's torment, their departure in tone from the rest of the work is unsettling.
Robert Morgan does double duty as costume and scenic designer. Intricate trellises are covered by autumnal leaves, and most of the cast wears shades of black, befitting a house in mourning. Viola and Sebastian's similar costumes of pale green brighten what's around them.
The play boasts songs, both lively and sad ones. All are well sung. Sarah Pickett did the sound design, composed the original music, and plays a musician.
Director David Frank told Isthmus that he seeks "the ache at the heart of" Twelfth Night. I see the push-pull between heartache and comedy. The characters go to great lengths to get what they need, or what they think they need.