Shakespeare’s beloved comedy of self-deception, “Twelfth Night,” is proving itself still fresh and profound in the summer production at Beatrice Herford’s Vokes Theatre.
Most theatergoers will remember the deception that the heroine, Viola (Nicole E. Coelho), decides on. Having washed up on the shores of Illyria and feeling sure her twin brother, Sebastian (David Wood), has drowned, she disguises herself as a youth called Cesario and offers her services to Duke Orsino (Grant Evans Wood).
The Duke, madly in love with the uninterested Countess Olivia (Melissa Sine), sends Cesario to plead his case. Olivia, having deceived herself that she is not susceptible to romance, promptly falls in love with this woman she assumes is a man. Meanwhile, Viola/Cesario is smitten with Orsino (obliquely confessing, “My father had a daughter loved a man, as it might be perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship”). There is additional confusion when Viola’s brother surfaces. Convinced he is dead, even she misconstrues signs to the contrary.
But the central deception in the Vokes production, perhaps because of David Berti’s brilliant and feeling characterization, is the self-deception of Olivia’s lugubrious steward, Malvolio. Malvolio’s egotism makes him easy prey to a raucous crew headed by Olivia’s perpetually drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Robert Zawistowski).
Sir Toby detests the self-righteous Malvolio, as do Sir Toby’s sidekick, the wealthy but dimwitted Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David W. Frank), Feste the clown (Peri Chouteau), and Olivia’s ladies Maria (Pamela Mayne) and Phoebe (Kate Beattie). When Malvolio threatens Sir Toby with banishment if he cannot mend his dissipated ways, Sir Toby retorts, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Malvolio’s efforts to get them all in trouble with Olivia determines the sybarites to use the steward’s own vanity to make him a laughingstock. Maria forges a letter in her mistress’s handwriting hinting that Countess Olivia loves Malvolio and that she longs to see him wearing yellow stockings and crisscrossing garters -- and smiling a lot.
The duped Malvolio manages the first two parts well enough, but the unfamiliar practice of smiling makes him look more like a corpse than a lover. The harder he tries to please, the more he appears mad. The path of self-deception leads the ambitious servant (“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em”) to a madman’s cage.
Among the merrymaking gang of five, Peri Chouteau is notable as the effervescent and wise fool. She also composed excellent music as a setting for Feste’s songs.
The opening-night audience had a good compliment of children, perhaps getting their first exposure to the famous lines, starting with, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Many generations have studied or performed this play, with the cross-dressing often being doubly hilarious in an all-boys’ or all-girls’ school production. (This reviewer has fond memories of playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek to Wayland resident Victoria Farrell’s roaring Sir Toby Belch -- and is pleased to note that the latter has settled down a lot since then.) The play also inspired the charming 1969 musical, “Your Own Thing,” whose tunes for some playgoers are forever evoked by certain “Twelfth Night” lines.
Today’s culture being more in sync with Shakespeare’s about same-sex affection means that some of those lines take on new resonance, as male characters are surprised to find themselves attracted to other men and the heroine must repel the advances of another woman.
Rounding out a fine cast are Robert Mackie as a sea captain; Jonathan Kiviat as Curio; Elliot Mark as Valentine; and Bob Williams as Antonio. The delightful priest is supposedly James Ewell Brown. Another deception? Despite the costume, he closely resembles the inventive “Twelfth Night” director and set designer, John Barrett.
The Jazz Age costumes were designed by Elizabeth E. Tustian, and the lighting by Daniel Clawson. The production is dedicated to the memory of a talented and well-loved Vokes actor, Jack Sweet.
“Twelfth Night,” which runs for a brisk two and a half hours, with one intermission, continues through Aug. 10. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.