The Bard Is Back: ‘Twelfth Night’ combines sitcom silliness, wisdom

CEDAR CITY, Utah — B.J. Jones’ only desire in directing "Twelfth Night" seems to be to tell Shakespeare’s story.

You never feel he’s a "creative artiste" trying to transform the material. The result is an evening equal parts quietly romantic, charming and rip-roaring funny. In the end, you feel as if you’ve really seen Shakespeare’s play; that Jones’ contribution has been to illuminate, not disguise.

Identical twins, Viola (Shelly Gaza) and Sebastian (Ryan Schabach) are separated by a shipwreck. Viola decides to try to make ends meet by posing as a male assistant to the Duke (Michael Sharon). Trouble is, she’s falling in love with him. More trouble when the Duke sends his "male" assistant to communicate his love to the rich countess Olivia (Carey Cannon), who happens to become smitten with the messenger. Things get really messy when Sebastian shows up and people now have no idea to whom they’re really talking.

The sitcom silliness is as expertly structured as it is illuminating, with the kinds of moments of wisdom that stay with you forever.

Jones doesn’t exaggerate the characters’ follies for easy yuks. He allows the looniness to build. He starts out slowly so that by the second act, when the events seem beautifully frantic and out of control, every bit of preposterousness is natural and right. And he has fun with the built-in homoerotic elements. You can see that the Duke, Viola and Olivia are as intrigued as they are frightened by the implications of their gender-confused attractions.

The performers wisely avoid stop-the-show shenanigans. They are too much of a seamless ensemble for that. Nonetheless, we can’t help but notice how effortlessly Donald Sage Mackay communicates the frustrations of his love-tormented Malvolio (Mackay wisely plays him as an earnest man who doesn’t have a clue how funny he is), or how well-controlled in movement, speech and honesty is Anne Newhall’s minor role of Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman.

Jones’ "Twelfth Night" may disappoint those looking for nonstop belly laughs. Its charm is its ability to create reality (which isn’t always belly laughs) and then twist and turn it logically into recognizable buffoonery — the kind that the gods have fun with by occasionally throwing our way.

I went home remembering those times in my life when I felt nothing was as it seemed. And, as I did when I watched this "Twelfth Night," I could do nothing but laugh.

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