In some of Shakespeare's comedies, the subplot intrigue of servants and fools completely upstages the plights of the nobles. Twelfth Night features one of the Bard's most deliciously pompous characters in Malvolio, and Ricky Graham is outrageously good as the quixotic servant. A cabal of meddlers, particularly Maria (Amanda Zirkenbach) and Sir Toby Belch (David Hoover) help make the Tulane Shakespeare Festival's production great fun.
The action is set at a French seaside resort town. Following a shipwreck, Viola (Michele Guidry) is washed up on the beach and fears her twin brother is dead. Viola disguises herself as a man and seeks refuge in the form of service to Olivia (Heidi Dippold), who is a noble woman in mourning, having lost her father and brother. Viola must first get past Malvolio, Olivia's chief servant. In following her orders, he relishes a sense of authority and takes every opportunity to lord it over others. His ego and vanity set him up for a prank in which he is led to believe Olivia has fallen in love with him. A letter forged by Maria suggests the hidden longing, and Graham is hilarious as he reads it aloud, twisting and contorting its content to suit his wildest, self-flattering fancy. Olivia actually discovers a new affection, but it is for the strangely understanding new confidante, Viola disguised as the gentleman Cesario.
Olivia's uncle Sir Toby spends his nights drinking and cavorting, and he particularly enjoys doing so with the house servant Maria. They're happy to share their debauchery with others, regardless of social stature. Together with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Gary Rucker) and Fabian (James Bartelle, employing an outrageous French accent), they conspire to humiliate Malvolio for constantly spoiling their fun. With his prodigiously bushy eyebrows, Napoleon-esque military garb and saber, Sir Toby is a grand buffoon whom Hoover animates with gusto. Zirkenbach is just as boisterous, and their antics and rivalry with Graham's Malvolio take over the play. Clint Johnson is excellent as Feste, both in baiting Malvolio and singing songs as a street entertainer. Under Shad Willingham's direction, the cast savors every innuendo and bawdy turn of phase, highlighting the story's subversive fun.
Dippold is radiant as the smitten Olivia, but nothing about the nobles' plights for romance matches the zesty antics of the subplot. Guidry's Viola sometimes seems more numbed than saddened by her predicament, and it's compassion that should help her in advertently charm Olivia.
David Raphel's set is a bright and well-designed playground for all the high jinks, and the light-hearted mischief makes Twelfth Night wickedly entertaining. — Will Coviello
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 1:30 p.m. Sat.
Tulane University, Lupin Theatre, 865-5106; www.neworleansshakespeare.com