A midsummer Twelfth Night

In its 30th year, the Tahoe Shakespeare Festival continues to offer lovable, exuberant Shakespearean comedy

Eat, drink and enjoy the crisp air before the show begins at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

Eat, drink and enjoy the crisp air before the show begins at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

Rated 4.0

The sand is cool. You take your shoes off and dig your toes in. The sun has gone down over the water and a flock of birds swoop by, their bodies tiny and black against the lush green mountainside. You’re feeling content and snuggly, with wine in your belly and a cozy blanket warming your lap.

As if that weren’t enough, you’ve got Shakespeare, too.

Performed by the Foothill Theatre Company, Tahoe Shakespeare Festival productions are famous for being wildly engaging—stuff that no one can resist loving. And indeed, you’d have to be a bitter, angry curmudgeon not to get into the spirit of the company’s performance of Twelfth Night, a fast-paced, funny production set in Czarist Russia.

Shakespeare was a sucker for the mistaken identity motif, as well as tidy endings—consisting of suicide, homicide or mass marriage, depending on your Shakespearean genre—and few of Shakespeare’s comedies are as pleasurably complex (and of course, as neatly resolved) as Twelfth Night. In the play, the shipwrecked Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria. She disguises herself as a boy in order to find employment as a servant to Orsino, the lovelorn duke of Illyria. Orsino is smitten with the countess Olivia, but Olivia, stricken by the death of her brother, has sworn off love. Orsino sends Viola to deliver messages of love to Olivia; Olivia dismisses the messages but falls in love—despite her vow of celibacy—with the messenger.

Lest audience members slip into a moment of boredom during the play’s many twists, director Robert Weinapple has created a production in which facial expressions go a long, long way. Jennifer Wagner is lovable as Viola, directing many a knowing look at the audience to remind us that we’re the only ones who she can trust as she attempts to hide her true gender, and Kai Morrison gives one of the play’s best performances as Orsino. While there’s little chemistry between the two, chemistry isn’t really what this production is about: Wagner and Morrison deliver much of their dialogue while facing the audience, a technique that waters down sexual tension but keeps audience interest riding high.

Rebecca Dines is the opposite of subtle as Olivia, the fussy, squawky countess who puts on much drama and even more makeup. I’ve seen productions of the play in which Olivia is a strong-headed, brooding woman—an interpretation that aligns with my ideas of Shakespeare’s Olivia, though Dines’ Olivia is far funnier.

Shakespearean comedy wouldn’t be the same without a subplot involving a pack of fools and/or drunkards, and Twelfth Night’s fools/drunkards are some of Shakespeare’s best. Brad Myers is hilarious as Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch; Karyn Casl is perfect as Olivia’s bawdy maidservant, Maria; J.G. Smith is uproarious as the cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Jonathan Rhys Williams puts on an excellent performance as the sly court jester, Feste. Robert Sicular is hugely entertaining as Malvolio, the prissy, over-starched steward who becomes the butt of the pranksters’ jokes. It’s these guys steal the show.

Tahoe Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night had me in stitches again and again. The performance was fast-paced but easy to follow, even for those unfamiliar with Shakespearean conventions. Best of all, the actors were brilliant at infusing 21st century humor into 400-year-old lines—pausing at just the right moment, or using just the right inflection, to make already funny lines absolutely side-splitting. As RN&R editor and fellow attendee Deidre Pike remarked after the show: "I want to take every high school kid who says he hates Shakespeare to see that play."