The energy of the NOLA Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” — which opens this evening, Tuesday, Dec. 2, in The Grand Hall of The New Orleans Museum of Art — was neatly captured in a rehearsal last week.
Romantic and troubled pirate Antonio, played by Kurt Owen, makes his way up the stairs of NOMA’s Great Hall, and upon reaching the first landing he comically slumps in exhaustion.
There are giggles from the small audience.
Once the pirate completes his ascent, the hall is filled with the sounds of seagulls, the lights change, and the opposite stairwell comes alive with the entrance of Kristin Witterschein as Shakespeare’s plucky but sadly smitten heroine, Viola.
Disguised as the boy servant Cesario, the shipwrecked maiden finds herself pursued with dark purpose by Keith Claverie as the officious butler Malvolio.
Just as Claverie prepares to deliver his line, a call from the audience in the hall is heard.
And Claverie does just that.
Stopping instantly in the second before he was meant to deliver his line and in a full sneer, his ridiculous frozen pose causes the entire cast and tech crew to erupt into laughter.
And the cause for the hold, director A.J. Allegra, joins them. The artistic director of the NOLA Project believes this mixture of moods is the key to the theater company’s latest collaboration with NOMA.
“I told the cast from the get-go that this play balances its humor and melancholy like no other work from Shakespeare. Many productions play up either one side or the other. But the play doesn’t have to be exclusively set in one mood.”
Shakespeare’s own version of a “Humours Play” that was made popular by his contemporary Ben Jonson, “Twelfth Night” is, in its director’s own words, the Bard’s “most mature comedy.”
“It is a work of disguise and transformation. And its connection to the Christmas season is more than just its title. After all, it is a play of epiphany with numerous characters coming to greater understanding of themselves.”
“Twelfth Night” marks the company’s seventh production either in the museum or the sculpture garden and is indicative of the groups’s growth over the last decade.
Fusing the merriment of “Midsummer” with the tragic reach of “Romeo and Juliet,” the play allows the company to show its growing range as Shakespearean actors.
Along with Claverie and Witterschein, the show features the talents of project regulars James Bartelle as the lovelorn Duke Orsino, Cecile Monteyne as lady-in-mourning Olivia, Jared Gore as the furious sybarite Sir Toby Belch, and Sam Dudley as the inept suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Seamlessly weaving the borderline between despondent and the riotously comic, the play tells the story of Viola, cast onto the Island of Illyria and separated from her twin brother Sebastian. Donning the disguise of a young servant boy, Viola finds herself in the employ of Orsino and in the midst of a world both morose and madcap.
Communicating this world of mixed emotions, Allegra decided to go with a different approach from the company’s earlier productions of Shakespeare.
Rather than a contemporary or more open-ended concept, the director firmly rooted his production in the world of a fairytale.
“So many fairytales deal in the same ideas of disguise and transformation that I found throughout the play, I decided it was the best approach for communicating the show’s mixture of moods,” he said.
Working with costumer Julie Winn, Allegra, inspired by engravings from Grimm’s fairytales, has given the production not only a look straight-from-bedtime-stories, but has gone the further step in creaing a prologue that heightens the sense that the audience is watching a tale told to children of all ages.
But lest purists worry about concept overwhelming Shakespeare, they can take heart in the final direction I heard the director give Witterschein.
Awaiting the end of a musical cue to begin a line, Witterschein found herself quickly adjusted in purpose by her director.
Encouraging her to deliver the line as soon as possible, he reminded, “no amount of music is better than the pacing of this play.”
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theatre. He can be reached at email@example.com