Twelfth Night is the story of a lovesick duke who can't get even a glance from the rich countess he adores. The countess, in turn, falls hard for the duke's servant, who has dressed as a man but is really a woman.
The servant mourns her brother's death by drowning, but he's actually living somewhere down the street. The countess' uncle, Sir Toby Belch, is a conniver who hangs with a dreadful ignoramus named Sir Andrew, and the two of them . . . well, it just goes on and on, in one of Shakespeare's wonderfully knotty plots that untwists on James F. Pyne Jr.'s simple set, framed stage-rear by three elegant arches.
A large chunk of the production's style comes from eyepopping costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis. She created three magnificent gowns for the countess (Mary Elizabeth Scallen, whose delivery of Shakespeare's language is as natural as a morning DJ's patter), striking jackets for the disdained duke (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and clothes that make the other characters appear as though pricey shopping on the Illyrian coast challenges that of Stone Harbor.
Several strong performances honor Shakespeare's shenanigans. Graham Smith is a vivacious, charming Toby Belch, the sot instantly ready for mischief, and Lenny Haas is perfectly dumb as dirt as his goofy sidekick, Sir Andrew. Kevin Bergen is the hideously aggrieved servant to the countess, and you feel his pain even as you laugh at him.
Miriam Hyman plays the duke's aide, caught in the deception of her own gender-bending; she's fun to watch, but sometimes we're too aware of her distinct delivery. Elizabeth Webster Duke, as a conniving lady-in-waiting to the countess, and Robert Wu, as a visitor who needs a low profile he can't maintain, give fine, animated performances.
Music reigns in this version. The tunes are sung by Jason Ma, who plays both the fool and the onstage piano. He may be the dourest Shakespeare clown you'll find - this fool's ample wit comes off, frequently, as flat - but the benefits of his strong voice and piano playing are clear in a comedy that calls for singing.
People's Light commissioned Vince di Mura to compose Elizabethan-style music for Shakespeare's lyrics, which works nicely until the last song, about rain and wind, which ends the play with a misfire. Instead of sending us out of the theater ready to face our own real-world confusions with street-smart vitality, its dirgelike melody is more appropriate for a retreat from a funeral parlor. 'Tis pity, as the Bard might say; the feel of the evening was totally opposite.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.
Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Abigail Adams, set by James F. Pyne Jr., music by Vince di Mura, costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis, lighting by Paul Hackenmueller, sound by Charles T. Brastow.
The cast: Mary Elizabeth Scallen (Olivia), Graham Smith (Toby Belch), Miriam Hyman (Viola), Lenny Haas (Sir Andrew), Kevin Bergen (Malvolio), Jason Ma (Feste), Christopher Patrick Mullen (Orsino), Elizabeth Webster Duke (Maria), Robert Wu (Antonio), Andrew Honeycutt (Sebastian), Mark Lazar (Fabian).
Playing at People Light & Theatre, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through April 7. Tickets: $28 to $48. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.