and measurably funnier because of its restraint -- the Folger's crisp, straightforward "Twelfth Night" is easily the best thing the troupe has produced this season. Guest director Gavin Cameron-Webb not only shows a keen wit and an understanding of Shakespeare, but has coaxed fresh performances from nearly all the familiar Folger faces.
In "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare concocts a tangle of mismatched lovers and mistaken identities and sets them in delirious Illyria in the year 1640. The plot, simply put: Duke Orsino pines for the maiden Olivia, while young Viola loves Orsino. To be near him, Viola disguises herself as a boy and enters Orsino's employ as his page. Orsino sends Viola/Cesario as his emissary to woo scornful Olivia. But her masquerade is too successful and Olivia falls in love with Viola, who has a long-lost twin brother Sebastian . . . . You can guess the rest. To keep things peppery, Shakespeare also tosses in several delicious pranks engineered by the roguish Sir Toby Belch.
Director Cameron-Webb keeps the scenes shifting smoothly and has engineered some nimble comic business, exemplified by an especially skillful bit of slapstick in which Belch and his stooges crouch behind a movable hedge while listening to Olivia's steward Malvolio read a faked love letter.
In his conception of the farce, the characters speak often and at length of love, but they love only themselves, as they strain to catch preening glimpses of themselves in the set's many mirrors. Cameron-Webb has also added lilting lute and flute music, delicately performed by Howard Bass, Lucy Fasano and Susan Manus.
Nearly everyone shines in the Folger cast this time out. As Viola, Sybil Lines, with her warbling voice and unfailing good humor, never tries too hard to convince as a boy and so almost pulls it off. Once she is smitten by Boy Viola, Marilyn Caskey's playfully proud Olivia gets a comic catch in her voice. Floyd King is resolutely hilarious as the stuffy steward Malvolio who is conned into making himself a fool for love. Edward Gero's Orsino is amusingly vain and melodramatic in his self-centered attempts to woo Olivia.
Decked out in a ludicrous canary costume, Richard Hart plays the contemptible fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek with an aggressively effeminate edge, giggling, shrieking and mincing -- and somehow makes it work. Emery Battis makes a rousingly ribald, redfaced, rubbernosed Sir Toby Belch. Michael W. Howell fleshes out the role of the wise fool Feste with a mellifluous, sometimes melancholy singing voice.
Set designer Russell Metheny has opened the two-tiered stage to the wings, and applied a multitude of mirrors and a highly polished reflective floor to create a handsome, conservative set with one strikingly contemporary idiosyncrasy, a mirrored obelisk that serves as a dungeon for maddened Malvolio.
Allen Lee Hughes' lighting scheme suggests sunlight and evening candlelight and makes the Folger's wooden stage glow. Gail Brassard designed the lovely and authentic-looking brocade and lace costumes. TWELFTH NIGHT -- At the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger through July 20.