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‘Twelfth Night’ continues royal tradition at Shakespeare in the Park

And so it was proclaimed, on a gloriously seasoned Thursday night, in the company of eager patronage, giddy company and stagehands and state’s royalty – state Sen. Marc Panepinto, in the Queen’s absentia – on the grassy knoll known colloquially as “the hill,” that the state honor Shakespeare in Delaware Park, the venerable cultural landmark that it is, on its 40th season with reverence and distinction.

Lady Lisa Ludwig, managing director, and Sir Saul Elkin, founder and artistic director, gracious shepherds of this honor, accepted the senator’s proclamation to community applause, and wasted no time in debuting their second and final production of an already commendable season. Their “Romeo and Juliet,” by most accounts – though, regrettably, not my own, schedules what they are – was an honorable treatment of one of our most classic stories. Tradition is the bloodline of this momentous season.

The opening night production of “Twelfth Night,” under the academic direction of Steve Vaughan, adds another feather in the company’s cap: the first all-male cast in Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s history. This may surprise, when you remember that all of the Bard’s plays were performed this way in their day, a condition of an unthinkable assumption that women did not belong on stage. But time has a way of moving on. Thank goodness we’ve evolved from those archaic norms.

Lest we confuse Vaughan’s artistic decision with a greater political statement on the many gender equations being calculated in today’s town square, he and the company make it clear in the director’s note and in other reported conversations that this staging does not attempt to make such commentary. It is merely a throwback to authenticity, to craft, to the life and times of their celebrated playwright.

I did not see the company’s last production of this gender-bending comedy, a fan favorite, when it was last on the hill in 2006. Much has changed since then regarding our awareness of gender fluidity, even our comfort in talking about it so openly, viewing it so regularly, on television and in film.

This is a stellar production of a cheerful, celebratory, even frivolous play. It involves many romantic entanglements, many confused identities, many head-scratchers and chest-clutchers. Few of these characters are ever who they appear to be, including dignitaries and heads of state, which is a delightful twist of the knife for fans of George Bernard Shaw and other later commentators. Look at these fools run amok! The lovers always take the prize.

Here, our heroes are the twins Viola and Sebastian, whose blond locks and pure complexions combine for a most convincing pair. They are almost never on stage together, as we meet them after Sebastian’s presumed death at sea. The identity contortions that ensue are rather pointless to outline here, though trust me on this one: much hilarity ensues, and all is settled in the end. (A 400-year-old spoiler alert: they reunite, and hilariously, after two and a half hours of delicious breadcrumbs.)

Vaughan’s direction is smart and fluid. The easiest laughs, regarding men actors in dresses – even men in dresses, whose characters play men – are rarely played big. Yes, there’s plenty to chortle at, but only thanks to the company’s formidable chops.

Tim Newell, as Olivia, is a constant hoot, giving us just the right amount of sarcastic side-eye and dismissive jab. He also looks divine in his purple gown, a little Frida Kahlo poking through. Joran Louis Fischer, as our wide-eyed, lemony Viola (and Cesario), practically sings to the birds, he is so pure; but also impeccably comedic. Fischer brings just enough contemporary sass to Viola’s rhetorical insults. Don’t cross her; she’ll fire back faster than you can draw your sword.

Adam Yellen, as Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria, is a huge jewel in this cast’s crown. He plays the matronly attendant as everyone’s caustic Italian or Polish grandmother, never shy with discipline or love. Of all of these feminized men, Yellen wears his dress the best. Yellen, once again, shows us how versatile, dependable and spectacular he is on a stage.

Many other actors chew their scenes with skill – Norman Sham and David Lundy make a spectacular duo; Stephen Wisker brings a great modern British wit to the table. PJ Tighe, as Sebastian, and Chris Hatch, as Orsino, are the only effective straight men among all these comedians, yet are entertaining in their ridicule of these many unexpected reveals.

It’s a phenomenal ensemble, with only minor discounts – David Dwyer’s set is a little Olive Garden-y, though maybe that’s the restaurant’s fault – of a hilarious play written by our foremost playwright, presented for our pleasure, for 40 more years, we can hope, on this beautiful hill in the park. A lovely night, indeed.