In Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, it's easy for a director to produce laughs with a drunk and insistent Sir Toby Belch and a pompous Malvolio, who is tricked into believing Countess Olivia has fallen in love with him. Olivia is often played simply as mourning and lonely, having recently lost her father and brother. In The NOLA Project's production at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), Cecile Monteyne gives Olivia a lighter mood and comic side, and a strong cast makes it a colorful and entertaining evening in the museum's Great Hall.
Much of the action, starting with the shipwreck and a flurry of blue fabric waves, comes spilling down the grand stairs at the back of the Great Hall, and there's a small playing space in the center of the hall blocked off by seating on three sides. The action also swirls behind the audience, in the aisles and on the balcony above, and that works well with the play's merry sense of confusion, with concealed gender identity, strangers arriving from different directions and pranksters spying on their target.
Twins Viola (Kristin Witterschein) and Sebastian (Joel Derby) are separated by the shipwreck, and Viola believes her brother has died. She dresses as a man and meets Orsino (James Bartelle), who is pursuing Olivia but patiently waiting for her mourning to end. Viola, made over as Cesario, seeks to serve Olivia, who becomes smitten with the handsome stranger.
Meanwhile, Sir Toby (Jared Gore) is having a drunken, outlandishly good time with the help of a wonderful enabler, Maria (Danielle Doyen). Toby is Olivia's uncle and feels entitled to his rowdy fun, but her servant and would-be suitor Malvolio (Keith Claverie) tries to put a lid on the good times. Andrew Aguecheek (Sam Dudley) arrives and is enticed into the mischief of planting a forged letter to Malvolio — supposedly detailing what Olivia finds attractive about him.
An oblivious Cesario is wooed with increasing fervor by the countess, and Monteyne makes Olivia vulnerable in a very funny and sweet way. She's also wonderfully horrified by the crassness of Sir Toby and her servants.
The production is well-paced, but director A.J. Allegra has a keen ear for the script, and he has the cast savor clever turns of phrase, and even single words, for maximum impact. He also maintains just the right tone throughout. Claverie's Malvolio is funny as a presumptuous lesser member of Olivia's court and pitiable as a dupe.
The schedule is irregular — Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday through this weekend — but it's well worth finding time in your schedule while this show is up at NOMA.