Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
80 St. Marks Place
Suppose one could quantify the collective talents of every “Saturday Night Live” alumnus since Billy Crystal. Hell, throw in the entire cast of “Mad TV” for good measure. The sum of these comic troupes would still fall short of the raw chops on display at the Pearl Theatre, whose gifted resident acting company superbly tackles the Pearl’s faithful renderings of classic, if overproduced, comedies.
Twelfth Night, the Pearl’s latest, showcases the company’s flair for farce in what is often described as Shakespeare’s most accessible play. The story of a shipwrecked young woman posing as a servant boy for the Duke of Illyria is enjoyable with no foreknowledge of Shakespearean lore or even a particular appreciation for the Bard’s work. Timeless devices, such as mistaken identity, misplaced adoration and drunken sing-alongs, are employed to their fullest comic effect by a diverse cast, headed by Ali Ahn as the cross-dressing protagonist, Viola. Ahn is adorably androgynous: part nervous schoolgirl, part nerdy sidekick. The elfin actress conveys Viola’s secret crush on the handsome Duke Orsino with a keen lack of social grace, visibly reluctant to aid his courtship with the well-heeled Olivia, played by Rachel Botchan. Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, as the narcissistic object of Viola’s affection, is appropriately unbalanced, bearing Orsino’s futile flame for Olivia as well as his clueless inability to discover Viola’s true identity.
The play is elevated from mere adeptness to true comic powerhouse with the appearance of its supporting players. Sean McNall, as the daffy jester Feste, once again proves himself the Pearl’s brightest star, veering between Feste’s charming buffoonery and musical interludes with calculated accuracy. He also never lets us forget that his character, despite his overt foolishness, is also the most intelligent of the play. McNall’s patent scene stealing is rivaled only by the bombastic Bradford Cover, who is hilariously imposing as the inebriated Sir Toby. Cover’s drunken ramblings will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a New York City tavern: He’s the happy Giants fan you pray will not become the angry Giants fan before the night is over.
An argument could be made that the last thing we need in this town is another Twelfth Night (there were no less than four versions of the play on New York stages in the last year alone), but the talented folks at the Pearl have nevertheless entered the gender-bending fray with fantastic results. Aside from a sprinkling of modern diction, Shakespeare purists will find little to pick at here. And if you’ve never heard of this Shakespeare fellow, well, you will surely not find a better introduction this year.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, February 2009