A Noise Within’s charmingly conceived “Twelfth Night” casts Illyria as a tropical anywhere, two parts North Africa and one part Caribbean isle, with Andrew Aguecheek a sunburned, pith-helmeted tourist; Toby Belch a fez-festooned dandy in white linens; and Feste a cutup in African batiks, singing his songs to lovely calypso and reggae melodies accompanied by a trio of backup singers in sunglasses.
It’s a conception that makes an easy virtue of colorblind casting both Feste and Orsino are played by black actors and one that compares favorably with George C. Wolfe’s somewhat uneven multicultural “Tempest,” though surely Wolfe’s wide influence can be seen in it. Director Dan Kern puts the accent on the play’s buffoonery here: Never mind the nominal Duke Orsino, Sir Toby and clan rule the land.
Leading the troops is Mitchell Edmonds, working with the dependable props of eye patch and cigar, and playing Toby with booming comic assurance. John Billingsley’s Aguecheek is the picture of a dithering, camera-toting dolt, bleating his lines in a high-pitched squeak.
Noise Within vet Joel Swetow’s oily Malvolio is at first among the play’s best turns, managing to wring some real sympathy in his misguided aspirations for his master Olivia’s hand, but his mile-wide grin becomes the least overstated effect in his big scene; Swetow’s performance ends up more than a little overcooked in its bid for big laughs. Alex Desert’s easygoing Feste is a nice reprieve from the broadness of the Belch bunch; Desert brings a casual rhythm to his prose and poetry alike. He also has a sweet singing voice, and Jeff Fairbanks’ music, played on an African xylophone , brings new charms to his songs.
With so much attention paid to the comic performances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the saga of Viola (Jill Hill) and Sebastian (Jason Low), twins separated by shipwreck, and their amorous attachments to Olivia (Jenna Cole) and Orsino (Dominic Huffman), gets somewhat lost in the shuffle.
It doesn’t help that Hill gives a fairly flat performance as Viola her idea of masquerading as a man is to strike macho arms-crossed poses and wag her head jocularly. And there’s no sweetness in the supercilious Olivia, making her infatuation with Viola somewhat superficial. Low, on the other hand, makes a touching Sebastian.
In the end, Shakespeare’s poetic musings about love’s constancies an inconstancies go by the wayside here, but rare is the production that brings off his comedy with this much assurance.