"Twelfth Night's" famous invocation — "If music be the food of love, play on!" — is fulfilled with elegant relish in Shakespeare Theatre Company's deeply satisfying new production in Sidney Harman Hall. The melodies cooked up by composer Lindsay Jones, both to Shakespeare's words and some new ones, and warmly served up by Heath Saunders's charismatic Feste, add fresh buoyancy to the cruelest comedy in the canon.
For the occasion, director Ethan McSweeny makes some of the best use ever of the company's larger theater, with a whimsical physical concept that underlines the play's subtitle: "Or, What You Will." In this case, the will of the director and set designer Lee Savage is to turn the hall into an airport departure lounge, and the transportation calamity that dumps into Illyria resourceful Viola (here, played vibrantly by Antoinette Robinson) is one movingly redolent of contemporary dread.
In a holiday play perfumed by death and driven by coincidence, suffused with exile and leavened by reunion, the bustle of an airline terminal can be a useful metaphor. It's a conceit you do have to roll with at times, as a no-nonsense Olivia, in the regally exhilarating guise of Hannah Yelland, presides over her household amid rows of waiting area seating and a trolley bar from the galley of a 727: Maybe we're all out there at the airport, grounded, after the heavy turbulence that brings Viola violently down to earth.
Hey: It's what you will! This is one of those occasions on which you're happy to contour your imagination to the curves that the visually astute design team throws at you. And more than that, it's an example of how to scale up Shakespeare for a challenging space like the Harman, to allow all the dimensions of a great play to breathe. (Note to the headhunters looking for a successor to company founder Michael Kahn, who retires at the end of next season: I don't know if the classically experienced McSweeny has his hat in the ring, but this production would make prima facie evidence of his artistic readiness for office.)
For me, one of the elements that affirms "Twelfth Night" as Shakespeare's comic masterpiece is its acknowledgment that comedy does not have to be merry. It can also be weaponized. No character in Shakespeare's lighter work is as brutally mistreated as imperious Malvolio, chief of staff of sorts to Olivia. Duped, tied up and ultimately, imprisoned by the rude mechanicals in Olivia's house, Malvolio — admirably portrayed by Derek Smith without a trace of camp — is condemned for the sins of presumptuousness and gullibility, for having the audacity to believe that Olivia might actually like him.
"I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" Malvolio hisses in the final seconds of the play after being freed from the airport dog kennel in which Maria (Emily Townley), Sir Toby Belch (Andrew Weems) and Feste locked him. It's an oddly discordant note in the redemptive wrap-up of "Twelfth Night," a reminder by Shakespeare that in the wisest heart (and that would belong in this case to the Feste whom Saunders so amiably embodies) there can reside a reservoir of malice.
Duality is a vivid feature of "Twelfth Night," reflected in the natures of two-faced characters such as the servant Maria, who betrays no sign to Olivia that she's a first-class mischief-maker (and Townley plays her duplicity to the hilt). There are polar opposites, as well, in the divergent suitors for Olivia: the fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a suitably dim Jim Lichtscheidl) versus heroic Sebastian (the handsome Paul Deo Jr.), Viola's missing twin brother. And of course, the doubleness extends to the essence of Viola herself, who assumes the identity of a man, Cesario, to take a job as messenger for Orsino. He's played by dashing, amusingly self-dramatizing Bhavesh Patel, wearing a silk floral suit by Jennifer Moeller that perfectly matches the floridness of Orsino's personality.
All of these characters, in McSweeny's hands, are in delightful balance, the silliest and the sincerest, the most scrupulous and the most strident, in the smallest roles to the largest. (Even talented young Koral Kent, in the usually tossed-off or sometimes even eliminated role of Fabian, gets her moments in a part that's been reimagined for a child; she alternates in the show with Tyler Bowman.)
It's a marvelous, comprehensive atlas of the comic world Shakespeare offers up, and this company deftly flips through its pages. And in the affecting climax of this evening, McSweeny manages his own commentary on this world, with a vision of a solitary Viola, at peace and inwardly transformed. The subtle implication of this final image is that you only find happiness by discovering yourself, that what you make of this life really is a matter of what you will.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Set, Lee Savage; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Scott Zielinski; projections and videos, Patrick W. Lord; fight choreography, Brad Waller; voice and text, Lisa Beley; assistant direction, Charlie Marie McGrath; production stage manager, Christopher Michael Borg. With Matthew Deitchman, David Bishins, Jack Henry Doyle, Chelsea Mayo, Maggie Thompson, Jeff Allen Young. About 2 hours, 45 minutes. $25-$118. Through Dec. 20 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.