12th Night: comedy and clowning at the outdoor amphitheater

Sir Toby (Christopher Roberts), Fabian (Jihan Ponti) and Maria (Liz Michael Hartford) heckle Malvolio (Christopher Kann) as he sports his new yellow stockings. — Photo by Meg Higgins

It’s not surprising that The Vineyard Playhouse’s production of “Twelfth Night,” currently playing at the Tisbury Ampitheater, includes a good dose of physical comedy and clowning.

The show is directed by Chelsea McCarthy, a wonderfully gifted comedienne who on alternate nights is bringing the house down with her antics in the other Ampitheater production, “Romeo and Juliet.” Ms. McCarthy and cast have turned “Twelfth Night,” arguably Shakespeare’s funniest play, into a laugh-out-loud evening of merriment and romance, which is being enjoyed equally by adults and even the littlest audience members.

A great match for Ms. McCarthy’s talents, the play features a number of comic roles, and the novice director (this is her second outing) has gathered a handful of talented comedic actors to fill them. Ampitheater veterans Liz Michael Hartford and Christopher Kann once again deliver the goods as, respectively, the clever, scheming Maria, and the victim of her elaborate prank, the humorless Malvolio. Mr. Kann, whom Vineyard audiences have previously seen numerous times in more serious roles, is absolutely hysterical as the pompous servant strutting around in short shorts and suspenders.

May Oskan, who plays the king’s fool, Feste, is a trained clown, and it shows. One of the funniest moments in the play takes place when she dons a fake beard and impersonates a priest, affecting a heavy Castilian accent, to torment the hapless Malvolio. Paul K. Padua does a marvelous job as the strutting fop, Sir Andrew, who also ends up the brunt of a practical joke.

However, the real comedic star of The Playhouse’s production is Christopher Roberts as Sir Toby Belch. Toby is one of the most outrageous and funny characters in all of Shakespeare’s work, and Mr. Roberts, who has previously been featured in a number of Shakespeare for the Masses staged readings, plays him to the hilt.

As opposed to Malvolio, a servant with the airs of an aristocrat, Sir Toby is a gentleman who thumbs his nose at good society and all it represents. Loud, crude, constantly wisecracking, and in a perpetual state of inebriation, Toby is the center of attention in every scene in which he is featured, and Mr. Roberts manages to sustain his manic persona brilliantly throughout. He seems made to play this role.

Even Tsilala Graham-Haynes as the heroine of the play, the proud Olivia, gets a chance to clown around a little. Despite an avowal to shun romance, Olivia loses her heart to a character disguised as a servant. “Even so quickly may one catch the plague,” as Shakespeare puts it. Ms. Graham-Haynes, who does a wonderful job as the refined Olivia, is soon transformed into a giddy schoolgirl, literally leaping with excitement.

In “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare plays around a lot with breaking down the distinctions between the classes. He even reserves one of the most eloquent (and oft quoted) lines for a servant. Maria writes in a letter, “Some are born great, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The line itself is intended to encourage another servant to step out of his subservient role and assume the attitude of a gentleman.

While “Romeo and Juliet” is a romance laced with comedy, “Twelfth Night” is a comedy full of romance. The play features no fewer than three love stories played out to their happy conclusions. It’s also rich in music. The production starts off with a song performed by Ms. Oskan, a seasoned singer/songwriter, and the opening line, “If music be the food of love, then play on.”

And as the romances unfold, Ms. Oskan does indeed play on, singing and strumming the ukulele to a number of tunes for which she wrote the melodies. The songs are each delivered in a slightly different style and Ms. Oskan has lent a nice jazzy feel to the production with her original melodies.

Music, romance, clowning, “Twelfth Night” makes great summer fare for all ages.

“Twelfth Night,” Aug. 3, 9, 11, 15, 17, Tisbury Amphitheater, Vineyard Haven. $20; $10 children under 18. For more information or for tickets, call 508-687-2452 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.