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Review: 'Twelfth Night' in the summer? Play on

Correspondent

The title of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” refers to the 12th night after Christmas, a time of revelry, role reversals and gender-bending disguises.

So why, you may well wonder, is Fort Lauderdale’s New City Players producing “Twelfth Night” in the middle of summer, and with a Florida-Caribbean vibe to boot?

Why not?

Enduring and universal, Shakespeare’s great comedies, tragedies and history plays lend themselves to all sorts of interpretations, including New City’s youthfully energetic midsummer’s reimagining of the mythical kingdom of Illyria.

Staged by Jessica Schulte at the Vanguard (home to Thinking Cap Theatre), “Twelfth Night” is a fast-paced romp through a world of misdirected love, scheming servants, dissolute revelers and gender fluidity, that last making an early 17th century play feel of the moment.

Set designer Ryan Maloney, who also delivers a comedic gem of a performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, has transformed the Vanguard’s black-box space into a place of docks and rocks and wooden walkways, sand and surf and the imagined smell of salt air.

It’s here that the vibrant Viola (Erica Rose Dade), rescued from a shipwreck by the kind Sea Captain (Reggie Campell), disguises herself as a young man named Cesario to enter the service of Duke Orsino (Robert Fritz). Instantly besotted, Viola is dismayed when Orsino sends Cesario to plead the duke’s romantic case to Olivia (Jenna VanWeelden), a countess who wants nothing to do with men during the seven years she plans to spend mourning her late father and brother. One look at Cesario, however, sends Olivia head over heels. So the countess loves a boy who’s really a girl who loves a duke who thinks the girl is a guy.

Got it?

Further complicating matters, Olivia’s oft-drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Johnbarry Green), has brought his similarly rowdy pal Aguecheek around to woo Olivia. Olivia’s servant Maria (Elizabeth Price), the cleverest Illyrian (or perhaps that’s just the magical combination of the role and the luminous performer playing it), hatches a delicious plot to humiliate Olivia’s snooty steward Malvolio (Kevin Reilley, hilariously pompous).

Olivia’s singing clown Feste (Bree-Anna Obst) and servant Fabian (Johnny Contini) also keep the antic pot stirred. And when Viola’s presumably drowned twin, Sebastian (Ernesto Gonzalez), a not-dead ringer for Viola-as-Cesario, and his pal Antonio (Nick Valdes) show up, the romantic equations multiply.

For the Shakespeare-fearful, New City provides a scene-by-scene summary in its program, and perhaps reading that before the show starts will let those less familiar with the Bard relax into the evening. But that’s really not necessary.

The dialogue is clear, comprehensible and effectively delivered by those with and without much Shakespeare in their bios. Price, the roaring Green and the skillfully silly Maloney are particularly adroit and captivating, and Dade is a plucky protagonist. Fritz’s self-involved Duke, who looks like a society type you might encounter at Mar-a-Lago, and Van Weelden’s pretty yet unformed Olivia, are less compelling.

Still, director Schulte, lighting designer Joel De Sousa, costume designer Ash Joseph, Maloney and the company keep the effervescent production afloat.

New City will be back at the Vanguard next month with a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” (Aug. 10-27). But why wait? Summertime Shakespeare is a beloved thing at festivals all over the country. Now, you can experience a bit of black-box Bard right in Fort Lauderdale.

“Twelfth Night” is running through July 23 at the Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35 ($30 seniors, $20 students). To order, call 954-650-5938 or go to NewCityPlayers.org.

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