In the Pearl Theatre Company’s robust production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, being performed under the watchful direction of J.R. Sullivan, this rueful comedy takes pains to allow for poignancy along with its playful shenanigans. Indeed, this story of shipwrecked twins Viola (Ali Ahn) and Sebastian (Joseph Midyett), who eventually find love in Illyria, owes much of its success to the performances of its supporting players.
Sean McNall as Feste (The Fool) sets the tone of the piece with his boyish innocence that belies his sharply knowing wit. He gives the play its comic drive and underscores, with his musical voice, the beauty of the language. His performance is perfectly balanced against the play’s most weighty character, the comically abused Malvolio (Dominic Cuskern), the haughty servant who is fooled into thinking that his mistress, Lady Olivia (Rachel Botchan), is in love with him. Cuskern gives full dimension to Malvolio, first making him convincingly officious, then comically foolish, and then ultimately heartbreaking when he is broken with humiliation.
The play’s other comic business is boisterously put over by Bradford Cover as Sir Toby Belch and David L. Townsend as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, with a helpful assist from TJ Edwards as Fabian. This threesome is pivotal in providing the nearly three-hour production with its lively pace. Michael Gabriel Goodfriend is amusingly broad as Duke Orsino and Jay Stratton is convincing and appealing as Antonio, the loyal sailor who befriends and helps Sebastian.
On the downside, Botchan plays Lady Olivia less imperiously and more sweetly than is the norm, a choice that runs out of steam as the play progresses. In her defense, her scenes are primarily against Ahn, who gives precious little sass to her performance as Viola.
If the set design by Harry Feiner seems a bit pedestrian, it is offset by Liz Covey’s generally effective costume design and Stephen Petrilli’s warm lighting design. And even when the players veer off into their version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” howling at the moon as they chime in on “Five Golden Rings,” one feels that they are still very much in the spirit of the play and are serving its ultimate sense of fun.