Theater Review: Gamm Gives Its Best to Middling Bard Comedy

by | Mar 28, 2024

Above: Alison Russo as Viola, Nora Eschenheimer as Feste. Photo by Cat Laine

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night features mistaken identities, gender bending, and twins lost at sea

There are great guys in bad bands, moral people in the most corrupt organizations and everywhere you look people turning lemons into lemonade. We make the best of it, right? The problem for yours truly is conveying how the very talented Gamm Theatre company did an exquisite job of delivering a perfectly mediocre Shakespearean comedy. 

Notice I said comedy. While even the lesser Shakespearean dramas like Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus bubble with an intoxicating violent malevolence anytime the plot falters or logic grows too byzantine, the comedies are rather hit-or-miss, allowing a wide berth between say Merry Wives of Windsor and say Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It or The Tempest, my putative top tier. (To be fair, other critics are much better disposed toward the play.)  

For yours truly Twelfth Night is a serviceable comedy of identity, lacking the sardonic pathos of Moliere’s Misanthrope or the insouciant wit of Oscar Wilde’s Earnest. It’s frequently performed, even more so than the aforementioned plays, undoubtedly because it’s not that complicated, and one can follow the logic whether you get every line or not. 

That’s because the plot resembles an extended episode of Three’s Company with ongoing shenanigans at Jack’s apartment and the Regal Beagle. To whit, the story revolves around shipwrecked siblings that each consider the other lost at sea and the self-contained and casually mean hijinks of drunken, overly-entitled aristocrats.

There’s a lot of subtext that plays on class which feels pretty lost in this production. The b-story of the main arc involves Sir Toby, who has a title and an eligible unwed ruling sister, Olivia, that he’s using to milk a wealthy fop of his ducats. 

There’s also a rather stiff Duke Orsino (Cedric Lilly) who’s also courting Olivia via a liaison (our lead character), who is in love with him and pretending to be a boy, and who, in classic Pocohantas fashion, Olivia immediately falls for. So there’s plenty of misdirection and nobody is who they say they are, demeaning pranks are pulled and Sir Toby winds up married to a duplicitous chambermaid, which would probably hit harder if class were more of a motif.

Let it be said that any sourness you read is due almost entirely to issues with the play itself. Pulling off any Shakespeare comedy requires a lot of physicality and energy, all the more so when the plot is so slim, and the Gamm is up to the challenge. The pratfalls and physical comedy are executed cleanly and joyfully. There’s also a couple nice bits of business with the audience, so if you fear such things, avoid front row center. 

One of the most delightful aspects of the production are the across-the-board fantastic performances by the women, who really shine in rather narrow roles. The Fool, Feste, acts as a sort of interstitial wandering musician tying the twin plot lines together and Nora Eschenheimer delightfully embodies the roguish self-interest and facility in song. Deb Martin nearly steals the show as a very expressively, severe schoolmarm-ish attending-lady-turned-would-be-lover (thanks to aforementioned prank) to the lady Olivia, played with coquettish charm by Donnla Hughes. 

Female lead, Alison Russo, is good as Viola, who pretends to be her brother, and handles the flirty back and forths with Olivia agiley, though to be honest, there really isn’t enough for her to do in the play, which made her seem less impressive somehow than the smaller more tightly drawn characters.

To be honest, all the male characters are mostly dumb, craven or at best, rather out of touch, in the case of Duke Orsino, who Viola seeks to court, but never generates any of the on-stage sparks one would expect, when his-would-be-betrothed Olivia, by comparison flames like a firecracker. Similarly, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Michael Liebhauser) is significantly taller, which demands some disbelief for the mistaken identity farce that drives the last act as plots intertwine. His role is barely there to begin with, and, like most of the other male characters, feels stillborn compared to the lively women. 

All of the secondary touches are on point. Costuming is particularly great, lighting is terrific and the music is inspired. In the details Gamm is as strong as any regional theater. I might quibble that the interestingly modular stage set doesn’t do much to enable the play’s humor or its themes, such as they are, but it’s well done and a lot of good use is made of the open space between the stage and audience which subtly (and literally) pulls them into the action. 

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly surprising play, there is a lot of activity and good physical humor. The women characters are delightful and there are men in it too, though they’re so basic or worse, you’re best focusing on the first clause. 

If you haven’t seen Shakespeare and wonder what they laughed about 425 years ago, you won’t go wrong checking out the Gamm’s Twelfth Night. It’s an entertaining production impeccably performed, but somewhat diminished by the mid-quality of the Shakespeare and the fact that very broad comedies of identity haven’t changed much the last half-century and are bound to seem a little hackneyed, if your expectations aren’t properly situated. 

Twelfth Night, Wednesday through Sunday, 7:30 p.m. with additional matinee on Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 14 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. 401-723-4266.

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

Deb Martin as Malvolio, background L to R: Kelby Akin as Sir Toby Belch, Jason Quinn as Fabian. Photo by Cat Laine

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