Set in the 1938 Appalachian coal-mining district of Pikeville County, Ky., this updated adaptation of Shakespeare, conceived by Robert L. Williams and imaginatively helmed by Susan Lambert, the production emulates the WPA Federal Theater Project that traveled the U.S. The setting’s overriding aura of poverty hinders much of the intended high-born comedic elements of the work — mistaken identities and mismatched lovers — but the production exudes a captivating rural humor of its own.
This adaptation certainly follows the show’s opening edict as the noble Orsino (Gerald Hopkins) proclaims to a band of local musicians, “If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it.” The production is infused with such mountain fare as “Coal Miner Blues,” “Wildwood Flower,” “That Good Ole Mountain Dew,” “Barbara Allen” and the Carter family classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Music director-guitarist Rob Kendt also insinuates melodies into Shakespeare’s words, setting “O Mistress Mine” to the tune of “Wayfaring Stranger” and turning “Come Away Death” into a blues.
The ensemble’s understated Appalachian accent fits the Bard’s dialogue quite well, never distracting from the complicated plot machinations, which remain quite faithful to the original.
Shipwrecked Viola (Kelley Birney) takes on a guise as the lad Cesario and finds employment in the service of Orsino, who pines for the distressed Olivia (Susan Brindley), who will have none of him. Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit and, naturally, Olivia is immediately smitten with the comely lad, who has problems of his/her own: Viola is irretrievably in love with her boss, Orsino.
In and around all this unrequited love, Olivia’s perennially soused uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Robert L. Williams), is wreaking havoc of his own, conspiring with Olivia’s earthy maid, Maria (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), and servant, Fabian (Joel West), to constantly bamboozle another of his niece’s suitors, the witless Andrew Aguecheek (Andrew Elvis Miller), and completely undermining Olivia’s monumentally pompous steward, Malvolio (Gene Gillette). As staged by Lambert, the clownish shenanigans of Belch and friends seldom reach comedic fruition but do offer needed diversion from the lovers’ woes.
The highlights of the production come mainly in the scenes between Brindley and Birney. Brindley’s Olivia is achingly endearing as a noblewoman who is rendered dumbfounded that her heartfelt love is not being returned by this sensitive young lad.
Birney is thoroughly winning as her Cesario persona struggles to cope with Olivia’s passion while the Viola within her yearns to express her own desires to Orsino. These two ladies exude such palpable sensuality and vitality that Hopkins’ undernourished Orsino and Eric Almquist’s tentative Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) actually appear undeserving of the prizes they receive.
The sets and costumes of Peter Lovello do much to enhance the period setting. Through occasionally undervolumed, band members Kendt, Roger Eaves, Karl Satterfield and Patricia Ann Lamkin provide impressive authenticity to the proceedings. Sean Galuszka appears much more at home vocalizing with the band than he does portraying the not so comical Feste, the Clown.