Leave your lawn chairs and coolers at home. But bring a mask. The Fenix Theatre Company has moved indoors for its first cold-weather show.

The company’s usual summer productions in Portland’s Deering Oaks park, often featuring a work by Shakespeare, have been a highlight of the season for years.  It’s warming now to remember the spirited Fenix performers charging across the bandstand or scurrying around the wading pool in the park as the late-day sunlight shafts through the trees.

But it is comforting to report that the elements of Shakespearian wisdom, go-for-broke comedy and a festive atmosphere that are frequently found in the park productions have made their way into the bland but otherwise accommodating auditorium at the Stevens Avenue Community Center in Portland.

Artistic Director Peter Brown has fashioned a fast-paced musical take on one of the Bard’s classic comedies. His “12th Night: A Holiday Celebration of Shakespeare and Song” fills the stage with an all-star cast of local actors and musicians obviously willing to give it their all.

The plot centers around a shipwrecked Viola (Casey Turner) who decides she will fare better in the land of Illyria if she passes herself off as a man. Complications ensue as disguised, mistaken and changeable identities lead to romantic confusion among nobles and their underlings who are, in this production, all willing to break into song on a moment’s notice.

Period costumes by Michelle Handley and a gift box-strewn set by Brown add pleasant detail to the proceedings.

We get an early clue as to the tone of the show when the word-playing jester Feste (James Patefield), backed by a four-piece band of actor/musicians (rimshots courtesy of David Register), offers a soulful rendition of “Blue Christmas,” a song made famous by Elvis Presley. He will later follow-up with a Joni Mitchell classic and join in several group arrangements of folk and pop oldies. A vocal quartet number, including a particularly mellifluous Kyle Aarons, who appears in multiple roles, is another highlight.

Casey Turner as Viola in “12th Night,” a festive take on the Shakespeare play. Photo by Michelle Handley

Meanwhile, Viola secretly falls for a romantically confused Duke Orsino (Benjamin Row) while his hoped-for lover Olivia (Kat Moraros) comes to fancy Viola in her male identity as Cesario. A coterie of drunken nobles (Christopher Holt and Nolan Ellsworth), mischievous servants (Sean Ramey and Lisa Boucher Hartman), and others (Mason Hawkes and Sam Rapaport) offer bits of ironic wisdom (not always fully discernible among the tumult of physical action) as well as songs from the sillier end of the holiday music spectrum (“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Santa Baby”).

Comic fights involving swords, pillows and, of course, words are offered along with some hilarious pratfalls and bits of run-through-the aisles craziness to keep the two-and-a-half-hour show, including intermission, whizzing by.

It wouldn’t hurt to (re)familiarize yourself with at least a synopsis of the play before seeing this production. But, regardless, there’s enough festive fun in this new holiday show to fill these chilly December days with much good cheer.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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