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Trinity throws a Twelfth Night party
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 10, 2010

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REVERSAL AND MISRULE: This gentlemen's-club Twelfth Night has everything but the exquisite sense that the midwinter party will soon be over.

Director Brian McEleney won a 2006 Elliot Norton Award for a 1930s-set Hamlet in which Polonius was matronly housekeeper to the royals of Denmark. He returns to a similarly hierarchical era for a raucous Twelfth Night (at Providence's Trinity Repertory Company through March 7) that hums with energy, drollery, and a makeshift score that meshes Shakespearean ditty with such seasonal fripperies as "Auld Lang Syne" and the Mariah Carey hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Performed like a parlor entertainment replete with song, clowning, and the Twelfth Night staples of reversal and misrule, the show is set in Eugene Lee's down-at-the-heels Edwardian men's club, where the paint is peeling and boughs of greenery spruce up worn banisters. Presaging singing jester Feste's assertion that "the rain it raineth every day" is a periodic hemorrhage through the roof. Alas, what doesn't leak in — along with enough water that the characters sometime sport waders with their gowns and waistcoats — is the melancholy that makes Twelfth Night more than the "madcap romantic comedy" McEleney purports it to be. His production is a sublime soup of silliness floating a dose of love juice potent enough to have A Midsummer Night's Dream's Oberon searching out the recipe. What it lacks, amid all the delicious zaniness, is the exquisite sense that the midwinter party will soon be over.

McEleney starts from strength, reprising the role of unctuously upright steward Malvolio, whom he has played before. Whether scolding drunken debauchers in his nightshirt and hairnet, circling the upper regions of the theater on a bike like a mad Margaret Hamilton, or fantasizing above his station in yellow stockings and a garter belt, McEleney is a gleefully starchy delight who's nonetheless the sympathetic linchpin of the production. Indeed, the butt-of-the-joke butler's genuine fury and anguish in the wake of his protracted humiliation by Sir Toby Belch and cohort (who set him up to believe that his aristocratic employer wants him to slip out of his straitjacket into something more comfortable) provides the only dark, shuddery note in the evening's merry, caterwauling tune.

Make no mistake, the comedy is superbly carried out, and not just by Fred Sullivan Jr.'s bearded Bacchus of a Sir Toby, Anne Scurria's jolly Maria, and Stephen Thorne's amiably out-of-his-depth Sir Andrew Aguecheek — who at one point arrives bearing a poinsettia that he butterfingers on the stair landing before taking a tumble that ought to require a stuntman. The denizens of Shakespeare's main plot — in which shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a young eunuch in order to work for Duke Orsino, who makes her his love proxy to the mourning Olivia, who wants to drop her weeds not for the master but for his messenger — are pretty freewheeling as well. Annie Worden, in particular, is a haughty Olivia whose libido unravels as fast as her carefully arranged hair.

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