I questioned the wisdom of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble scheduling its new production 'Twelfth Night' at the UCD Arboretum's gazebo, fearing the audience would freeze outdoors on these cold winter nights.
But the company has encased the gazebo in tarps, installed heaters and the resulting intimacy of the 'theater' was so warm, I even removed my jacket before the end of the evening.
The company's very first production, last summer's 'Romeo and Juliet' had only four members in the cast. They have now expanded to 11 actors and three musicians.
'Romeo and Juliet' had no sets and only the most minimal of costumes. This production has, while not exactly a 'set,' at least a hint of one and a couple of more complicated costumes.
And so the quality of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble is growing, and the strong performances exhibited across all roles in 'Romeo and Juliet' continue in this joyous new production of one of Shakespeare's funniest comedies, which relies on gender-bending, mistaken identities, and love at first sight - over and over again. The production is again under the direction of Rob Salas, who has acquitted himself well.
The heroine of 'Twelfth Night' is Viola (Gia Battista), a shipwreck survivor mourning her brother Sebastian (Matthew Canty), whom she believes was lost at sea.
For some reason - which is not made clear - sight-unseen, she decides she loves Duke Orsino (Will Klundt). To get closer to him, Viola pulls her hair back, puts on men's clothing, declares she's a eunuch named Cesario and becomes the Duke's servant, in the hope of winning his love.
But Orsino is in love with the fair Olivia (Alison Sundstrom), also mourning a dead brother and father and rejecting all thoughts of love for seven years.
Orsino sends Viola/Cesario to woo her for him. Complications arise when Olivia decides instantly that Cesario is the man of her dreams and forgets all about her self-imposed period of mourning.
This sets up the scenario where Orsino loves Olivia, Olivia loves Cesario/Viola, and Viola loves Orsino.
And then there is the perpetually besotted Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Brendan Ward), also in love with Olivia, who seems to spend a lot of time drinking with his buddy, Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Robert Williamson) and the fool Feste (Esteban Gonzalez), who plot to play tricks on Olivia's steward Malvolio (Kristopher Ide).
Battista is a cute Viola (who could pass as a rather feminine boy) and, thanks to costumer Caitlin Cisek, she bears enough of a resemblance to her brother Sebastian (albeit a great height difference) that the confusion between the two at the end of the play is kinda-sorta plausible.
Sundstrom plays the sex-deprived Olivia to the hilt, and is very funny swooning over Cesario. She was a delight to watch when she sees what she perceives as two Cesarios, first shock and then delight as she contemplates the possibility of two lovers.
Stephanie Hankinson gives a solid performance as the earthy Maria, who conspires with the men against Malvolio and who herself is attracted to Sir Toby. She has a hearty, robust laugh and dominates any scene in which she appears.
As for the Malvolio of Kristopher Ide, it is just delicious. It is so much fun to watch his ramrod prim and proper demeanor melt as he believes Olivia loves him and he becomes willing to make a fool of himself to please her.
Gonzalez is a commanding Feste, taking liberties as the clown, and singing all of the original rock/blues/folk music written for the production by Richard Chowenhill. His is a very physical interpretation and he is literally all over the stage - including the rafters - in his performance.
Gabriel Rosa is Olivia's servant Valentine, and Mark Curtis Ferrando is Antonio, the captain of the ship and Sebastian's friend.
'Twelfth Night' continues through Jan. 23 at the Arboretum Gazebo and is a delightful way to pass an evening.