I have to confess to a certain ennui when it comes to Portland Center Stage productions. Their work usually strikes me as competent but a tad soulless; pretty sets and costumes, safe scripts, actors who know how to emote clear to the balcony. So suffice it to say that I was taken aback by how much I liked their current production of Twelfth Night. Their fresh, irreverent take on the Bard just might be the best thing I've seen on the Armory's main stage. The production deftly walks the line between Shakespeare-as-period- piece and Shakespeare-as-popular- entertainment—or maybe it just refuses to acknowledge the existence of such a line in the first place.
When the pretty young Viola (Jennifer Lee Tayor) is shipwrecked on a strange shore, she decides to cross-dress her way into the court of Orsino, who employs her as a page. Predictably Shakespearian hijinks ensue: mistaken identity here, gender-bending love interests there. It's a fun script, and in director Jane Jones' treatment, it's the funniest 400-year-old play you've ever seen. Even Deborah Trout's costume design mines the era for all the humor it's worth, from men in pumpkin pants (it's a technical term!) to women whose breasts brim dangerously over their necklines.
Brad Bellamy gives the comedic performance of the year as Feste, Lady Olivia's court jester, whose knowing winks toward the audience acknowledge the ridiculousness of the action while encouraging us to go along with it anyway. Always-excellent local actor Darius Pierce, meanwhile, is a dedicated comedic foil as the daffy Sir Andrew.
Twelfth Night is running in conjunction with The Beard of Avon, a comedy that speculates about the true identity of William Shakespeare. The two shows share the same set and cast, and run on alternating schedules. Beard is fluffy and clever, a funny conceit (a man by the name of "Will Shakspere" was used as a "beard" by various noble folk, who published plays under his name) that overstays its welcome somewhere during the second act. It's worth seeing simply because this ensemble works so well together—but if your theater budget doesn't allow you to catch both, don't miss the exuberant production of Twelfth Night.