Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is set in the fictional kingdom of Illyria. While this mellifluous-sounding name doesn’t exist on a map, Theatre Pro Rata will be re-creating it in parks and public spaces across the Twin Cities for the next two weeks as they take “Twelfth Night” to the great outdoors.
The play is an inspired choice for an outdoor production, requiring little more than actors, minimal props and a willing suspension of disbelief to bring its sparkling zest to the fore. It revolves around a pair of twins, mistaken identities and an unlikely love triangle. Add scheming servants, a couple of boozy buffoons, a witty fool and some cross-gartered yellow stockings to the mix, and the stage is set for a madcap comedy.
Derek Meyer’s Orsino and Amber Bjork’s Olivia signal the playful tone of the proceedings at the outset, as a couple of wealthy idlers indulging themselves in a brittle and elegant pas-de-deux of social gamesmanship. He pines for her in graceful indolence while she returns his love tokens with elegant scorn. MaryLynn Mennicke provides a strong contrast to their artifice, with a lively and grounded performance as Viola, the go-between who unwittingly becomes the object of Olivia’s affections.
In this production of “Twelfth Night,” however, the love triangle takes a back seat to the comic antics of the subplot. Charles Numrich is a wonderfully dissipated Sir Toby Belch, slugging on a hip flask and declaiming with authority, while Katherine Kupiecki’s Maria combines bawdy humor with cunning. The production comes to life when the two hatch a plot to bring down Olivia’s haughty steward, Malvolio, played by David Beukema.
Ranging from priggish condescension to mincing hilarity, Beukema lends Malvolio a puffed-up self-importance that begs to be deflated. The scene in which he reads a letter purportedly revealing Olivia’s passion for him is one of the highlights of the show.
Director Carin Bratlie takes full advantage of the outdoor setting, keeping the actors who aren’t actively involved in a scene within the audience’s periphery. Thus, while Viola is being told that a fearsome Sir Andrew Aguecheek (played with doltish charm by Andy Chambers) is determined to do battle with her, Chambers himself is off in the distance going through a contorted set of calisthenics to stir up his courage. This is but one example of a wonderfully conceived technique that adds to the depth and visual interest of the production.
It’s hard to imagine a nicer way to spend a lovely June evening than in allowing Theatre Pro Rata to transport you to Illyria for a charming “Twelfth Night."