A lot of the "funny" stuff is punning and obscure wordplay that means practically nothing to us nowadays. We assume that this dialogue was funny in Shakespeare's time, but how do we know for sure? Maybe his audiences groaned instead of laughed. In any case, now it's mostly an ordeal to sit through, and I think it is wise to cut a lot of itmore of it than was cut in this production.
Another comedic thread, the abasement of the pompous Malvolio, is funny if you consider sadism funny, I guess. Malvolio is so "notoriously abused," as he says, that I find this subplot (which has nothing to do with the rest of the story) quite uncomfortable. Although it starts out with the promise of humor, it ends in degradation.
The meat of Twelfth Night, for me, and why I think it's still a wonderful play and still so popular, is the roundelay of unrequited longing: Viola longs for the Duke Orsino, Orsino longs for the Countess Olivia, Olivia longs for Cesario (who is really Viola in male drag), Orsino has a perplexing attraction to Cesario as well, and on a tangent to this circle, Antonio longs for Sebastian. This could all be quite melancholy if it were not for the wit and poignant observation and gentle humor and sympathy with which Shakespeare handles it. Therein lies his genius. The rest is shtick.
As in several of Shakespeare's plays, the exposition is handled in a few lines early in the play, before we have time to get accustomed to the archaicisms and the syntax, and I remember that the first time I saw Twelfth Night, I had almost no idea what was going on for about half of the play. The important thing to know is that Viola and Sebastian are twins, but even though one is female and the other male, they look so much alike that no one can tell them apart. (Farfetched? Well, it's a comedy, and this is part of the situation.)
They have been separated in a shipwreck, and although both have been rescued by different people and are now in the land of Illyria, each one thinks that the other has died at sea. Viola decides early on that in order to survive, she should enter the court of Duke Orsino, but disguised as a young man (a "eunuch," she says) named Cesario. Orsino sends Cesario as his emissary to woo Olivia. From there, romantic misapprehensions ensue.
There is a tidy and rather perfunctory ending. (Orsino, in effect: Cesario, you're really a woman? Well, put on a dress and let's get married.) It's happily ever after for everyone except Antonio and Malvolio. But the ending doesn't work well if Viola and Sebastian don't look almost exactly alike (and in this production, they don't). Suspension of disbelief can only go so far. I wonder, because of Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors, whether Shakespeare had identical twins in his troupe. Without them, it's hard to pull these plays off on stage, although easy to do on film.
This production, directed by Brian Hansen, is set in Italy in the mid 20th century, judging by the costumes by Lila E. Martinez. The scene seems to be at the seashore, but why paint the floor to look like a beach when no one ever comes out in a bathing suit? (I know the Vortex has a minuscule budget, but this play is supposed to take place over about three months, and yet everyone except Malvolio wears exactly the same clothes in every scene.) I liked the pre-play announcement in Italian, especially the "Guglielmo Shak-a-spir-eh" line. Why the intermission music was Marlene Dietrich, I don't know. I did like the melodies that Aaron Lewis set on the lyrics "O Mistress Mine" and "Come Away, Come Away, Death."
For the most part, things go well. The actors of the comic subplot do what they can with the material which, at least in my opinion, hampers them. The standout here is Daniel T. Cornish as the gullible and effete Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Andrew Patrick Mazer as Feste, the Fool, gives it all he's got, and has a good singing voice as well, but his clown costume and clown face paint are serious miscalculations. They don't make him wittier or funnier, only creepier. Andrew was a perfect Puck previously at the Vortex, but his talents are not used to advantage here.
Jessica Record starts out sounding like she is reading from the script, but soon becomes a real character as Olivia, and her developing infatuation with Cesario is charming. Ned Record as Orsino has a good voice, but he doesn't show anything that would make us see why Viola would fall in love with him.
There are two really compelling reasons to see this show: Caitlin Aase and Charles Fisher. Caitlin is totally natural as Viola/Cesario. Her acting is unforced, she never overplays, she speaks her lines as if that's how she always talks, and she looks so Bieber-ishly cute in her ice cream suit that you can readily understand how both Olivia and Orsino would fall for her.
Charles is the only natural-born Brit in the cast, and he was born to play Shakespeare. We don't see him often enough on Albuquerque stages because he chooses his roles sparingly. We're lucky that he wanted to play Malvolio, and he is perfect in the part. The scene in which he reads a forged letter that leads him to think that Olivia is in love with him is priceless, a lesson in comic timing. Although I really don't care for the whole Malvolio storyline, the role is a good role for the right actor, and Charles (not Chuck!) is the right actor for it.
See this play for these two performances, and because it's Shakespeare. One word of warning, though: take a sweater even though it's midsummer. When the air-conditioning kicks on, you might need it.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is being performed at the Vortex Theatre, on Buena Vista just south of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, through July 15, 2012. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Reservations at vortexabq.org.