The Schubert Theatre in Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University is a kind of thespian trampoline. The three-sided stage with arena-style seating on each of the three sides lends itself to actor-audience interplay.
The actors seem to leap off the stage. They are up close and personal. You can see the gleam in their eye. You can sense the weight of the role on their shoulders. They use direct-address to the audience, make eye contact and may include you in the action from your seat. At times, the actors run to and fro from the very entrance where you handed in your ticket and got your playbill.
The Schubert is the “play ground” of choice for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival comedic romps, as, for example: “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” (2017), “Around The World In 80 Days” (2015), and “The 39 Steps” (2013).
Director Matt Pfeiffer and his merry band of actors utilize the Schubert to its fullest in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” through July 15 at PSF, in what is an actors’ lab of humorous asides, slow-burns and quick wit. It’s almost as though they’re making sport of Shakespeare, or, perhaps more accurately, they’ve turned Shakespeare into a contact sport, physically, emotionally and strategically.
Pfeiffer, with an admixture of theater styles of comedy with roots in Commedia dell’arte and contemporary improv, and cinema styles with roots in the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and Monty Python, has unleashed most of the 16-member cast to take their characters, dialogue and plot elements to the hilt.
The calm at the center of the madcap storm is Eric Hissom, in a performance that is hilarious for its stoic understatedness, as Feste. Hissom is in fine form as singer and multi-instrumentalist, rendering the music written by Alex Bechtel (the show’s music director and sound designer) and lyrics written by Shakespeare with the winsomeness of Cat Stevens before he wanted to save the world. Hissom knows the world is as lost as a fool and he’s the wiser for it.
The music, also performed by several cast members (among them, Anelise Diaz, Dante Green, Stephanie Hodge, Amy Rose Johnson), variously on piano, cello, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, accordion, glockenspiel and trap drum, undergirds the humor with a sonic landscape of longing.
As the foppish, over-the-top, spectacularly-attired in three separate floral-pattern suits, with vests, bowties, shorts, colorful socks and brown shoes (in the show’s costume design by Olivera Gajic), Bechtel functions as a kind of actor on the other side of the teeter-totter to Hissom’s somberness. Bechtel skips through scenes with the thrown-back abandon of clueless sincerity.
Rounding out the trio of clowns is Scott Greer as Sir Toby Belch, whose creation of besotted silliness serves the material well.
On the side of the seriousness (mistaken identify, lost siblings and genuine remorse) of the play is Akeem Davis, with an an intense dignity, as Duke Orsino; Eleanor Handley, seemingly floating above the fray in elegant manner and gowns of black, green and yellow, as Olivia: Suzanne O’Donnell, who duplicates dupliciousness to delicious effect, as Maria, and Greg Wood, who takes unction to an extreme function, finds new fronts for effrontery, and plays the fool not by design but by entrapment, as Malvolio (he’s “notoriously abused”).
Tossed between the two worlds of the silly and sublime is Victoria Janicki, playing a duality so beautifully and as pertinent as the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” as Viola.
The cast includes Guillermo Alonso (Antonio, Sea Captain), Jahzeer Terrell (Sebastian), Ethan Larsen and Jhalil Younger.
Scenic and Lighting Designer is Steve TenEyck. Fight Director is J. Alex Cordaro.
“Twelfth Night” is a fest of wordplay and the poetical. “What will become of this?” it’s asked. See, and hear, for yourself.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)