When the Countess Olivia played by glamorous Christina Sajous declares “How wonderful!” in the final scene of The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s return engagement of its production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she most likely has the whole audience in agreement. Director Carl Cofield has created a colorful, imaginative and humorous staging of a romantic comedy classic that usually has two melancholy leading characters and is not very funny. Add music and dance to the talented cast led by the dynamic Kara Young as well as visual stage pictures which are very cinematic and you have a top-notch revival for audiences of all ages.
In the classic ingénue role of Viola, a twin who is washed up on the shore of Illyria believing that her brother Sebastian has drowned and in order to survive as a woman alone masquerades as “Cesario,” a male youth, Young is feisty, self-sufficient and a bundle of energy. Like her roles of Letitia in Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s in 2021 and Jess in Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living in 2022 in her first Broadway performances, she is always commanding. Not surprisingly, Cofield’s production revolves around her.
However, the rest of the cast is also at the top of their game. As the grieving Countess Olivia who has recently lost both her father and her brother, Sajous, glamorous as a Hollywood movie queen and dressed in the chic gowns of Mika Eubanks, is a delight as she quickly shifts from sad to curious to smitten. Rather than making her Olivia the downer she usually is, her performance is immediately romantic as she woos Cesario who she thinks is a man, the first one she has let in her life since the deaths her family. As the Duke Orsino, rejected in love by Olivia repeatedly, William DeMeritt bounces back each time with yet another ploy. Never is he the melancholy and boring swain of old.
In the roles of the comic characters, they are expertly cast creating mirth throughout the play. As Olivia’s unruly and drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch, Chivas Michael is mischievous, fun loving and amoral. Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria played by Cassandra Lopez is flirtatious and cunning. Carson Elrod is hilarious with a new twist to the simpleton Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s gull whom he hopes to marry off to his niece. Elrod’s choices are new and farcical, as he attempts to be as eccentric as possible to win attention and praise, never knowing the laughs are on him. As the sidekicks, Fabian, Olivia’s servant, and Feste, her Fool, the artful Donathan Walters (also playing the fake curate “Sir Topaz”) and the devious Israel Erron Ford add to the sly inventiveness of their plots, with Ford also excellent as the singer of Shakespeare’s many lovely lyrics as set to music by Frederick Kennedy. These include the famous songs, “O Mistress Mine,” “Come away, come away death,” and “The Wind and the Rain.”
As the butt of many of the jokes, Allen Gilmore as the disapproving and judgmental Malvolio, Olivia’s Puritan killjoy steward, is unsympathetic to the extent that we don’t mind the pains he is put through. His intemperate behavior is as much to be chastised as Sir Toby’s excessive carousing. They make excellent foils for each other. As the Sea Captain Antonio, Denzel Fields is forceful and makes himself noticed in a role that often goes overlooked. J’Laney Allen looks enough like “Cesario” (particularly in Eubanks matching costumes in reverse patterns) to be mistaken for his sister while giving him a pugnacious personality of his own.
The three receding archways for Riw Rakkulchon’s unit setting suggest an African locale as well as suggested by the original Afro-Caribbean music between the scenes by Kennedy. It blue and green color scheme is carried through to the set pieces that are slid on and off stage by four dancing members of the ensemble to delightful choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, also the associate director. The most impressive scenic element is the lighting by Alan C. Edwards which bathes the stage and its back drop in a different dazzling color for each sequence (orange, purple, yellow, blue, salmon, etc.) making quick cinematic transitions from one scene to another. Brittany Bland is responsible for the psychedelic projection designs which give some scenes an otherworldly aura. Eubanks’ colorful costumes for the cast and ensemble are not only eye-filling but also make very clear who are the followers of Viola (dressed in white and salmon) and who are the followers of Orsino (black tops and black and white print pants.)
Carl Cofield’s Twelfth Night for The Classical Theatre of Harlem is a joyous evening of fun and frolic. Not going in for pratfalls and hijinks, the comedy still contains clowning and physical playfulness. This is a well-thought out modern dress production of Shakespeare that is consistent and easy to follow. No time is lost on the scene changes and the music and dance continue the light touch of the director. This is a Twelfth Night for theatergoers of all ages as well as aficionados who thought they have seen the play too often. This is one Shakespeare comedy which will make you hungry for more performed in this vein. When it is over, you may wish it were longer, high praise indeed.
Twelfth Night (Return engagement: February 11 – 19, 2023)
The Classical Theatre of Harlem
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, south of Washington Square South, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nyuskirball.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes without an intermission