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In ‘Twelfth Night,’ romance is served up with a side of gloom at Writers Theatre

Jennifer Latimore and Andrea San Miguel in a scene from "Twelfth Night, Or What You Will" at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Jennifer Latimore and Andrea San Miguel in a scene from "Twelfth Night, Or What You Will" at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

“Twelfth Night” is perhaps the saddest comedy ever written. The jokes are as cruel as they are hilarious. In the end, there are three shattered hearts alongside the giddy lovers. In Writers Theatre’s lavish, insightful production, the final moments come with the chill of winter.

Shakespeare deploys most of his usual devices in “Twelfth Night.” There are mistaken identities, a woman disguised as a man, shipwrecks, raunchy jokes, drinking songs, and a fool who is wiser than everyone else.

But amid the predictable tropes, director Michael Halberstam gives you get the feeling that every character on stage has survived something terrible, the kind of thing from which you never quite entirely return. With the Lady Olivia (Andrea San Miguel), it’s the death of her beloved brother. With the others, it’s not so obvious, but it’s there nonetheless, waiting like patience on a monument to remind everyone that sunlight is fleeting and nightfall inevitable.

‘Twelfth Night, Or What You Will’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through Dec. 16
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Info: WritersTheatre.org

Those layers of sorrow are most apparent in William Brown’s Feste, Olivia’s fool. Well, not a fool: Feste denies that title. He’s a “corrupter of words,” Feste says. It’s an apt title. The comic relief in “Twelfth Night” is edged in corruption, a razor in an apple. There’s something rotten lurking the kingdom of Illyria. Peel away the laughs, you’ll find something exposed and raw. Midway through the second half, the production takes a turn into the horrific. There’s a dungeon and a wretched, filthy man screaming for help or at the very least, a bit of light. Neither comes.

The plot begins with a storm. Viola (Jennifer Latimore) and her twin brother Sebastian (Luce Metrius) are separated when their ship sinks in the tempest. What follows is a storm of disguises. Viola washes up in Illyria, where she puts on pants, calls herself Cesario and gets a job as a serving boy to Count Orsino (Matthew C. Yee), with whom she falls in love. Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, sends Cesario to court her. Olivia falls in love with Cesario.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s dipsomaniac uncle Sir Toby Belch (Kevin Gudahl) cons the needy, besotted Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Scott Parkinson, who cuts a caper like nobody’s business) into believing Olivia might love him. Sir Toby wants Sir Andrew around, because Sir Andrew has money. Sir Andrew is desperate and dim enough to believe that Sir Toby is his ally.

Matthew C. Yee and Jennifer Latimore in "Twelfth Night, Or What You Will" at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Matthew C. Yee and Jennifer Latimore in “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Then there’s Olivia’s steward, Malvolio (Sean Fortunato), a smug, pretentious, puritan who – if he had his way – would ban cakes, ale and anything smacking of pleasure from all of Illyria. He doesn’t want to save the sinners around him. He’d rather seen them executed. After Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, Maria (Karen Janes Woditsch) cooks up a plot to take Malvolio down a peg, his pompousness curdles. The man who was once ridiculous has become dangerous.

Halberstam’s cast uniformly nails the comedy and the tragedy. Latimore’s Cesario is a spirited, smart heroine of terrific resourcefulness and equally intense emotion. Parkinson makes Sir Andrew’s cluelessness alternately hilarious and heart-breaking. You’ll get a lump in your throat when you realize the depth of feeling Sir Andrew has for his horse.

San Miguel’s Lady Olivia believably moves from regal grief to giddy-in-love. Woditsch’s Maria grounded nature keeps Sir Toby from toppling into complete debauchery. Her gentle, almost off-hand reproof to Sir Toby (“that quaffing and drinking will undo you”) carries the weight of an understated prophecy. When she says it, you can see Toby’s final days. As Toby, Gudahl is a one-person raucous party – until he realizes, too late that he’s gone too far.

But it’s Brown’s Feste who anchors the production. Halberstam gives him several crucial musical numbers – not big song-and-dance extravaganzas, but high, lonesome meditations on mortality. “Come Away Death” might be a title that seems a little on the nose. In Brown’s delivery it isn’t.; it’s a sound like light through stained glass, high, beautiful, and ephemeral.

Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes tell sumptuously detailed stories about the characters wearing them. Set designer William Boles’ elegant, spacious courtyard is ringed by curved doorways and bathed in lighting designer John Culbert’s mostly saturated sun-tones.

“Twelfth Night’s” primary flaw is its romance. When characters fall in love, it’s more of a plot device than a believable part of character development. But that’s easily overlooked. Shakespeare’s words – rascals or not – create unforgettable characters. And Halberstam and his cast do them justice.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.