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theatre review

Twelfth Night at the National Arts Centre

This is Feste's Twelfth Night. Olivia's fool is causing havoc before William Shakespeare's comedy begins, popping out from behind the curtain to check out the audience – and, on opening night at the National Arts Centre, even interrupting artistic director Jillian Keiley's pre-show announcement.

Played by Vancouver-based actor Kayvon Kelly, swaddled in a ridiculous white outfit that makes him look like a walking, talking sperm with a codpiece, Feste stays in control throughout. He observes scenes he's not in, interjects off-script when he feels like it, and engages in anarchic antics that can even make a stage veteran like Bruce Dow (playing Malvolio) corpse on occasion.

Most of all, Kelly makes Shakespeare's comedy feel like a real comedy. His hilarious Feste is the type of Shakespearean performance that comes along only infrequently, that helps you hear the language in a new way and startles you in its contemporaneity.

Suddenly, it seems if you strapped the man from Stratford into a time machine to today, he could easily find work on the writing staff of an intelligently crass television show such as Inside Amy Schumer or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Technically, Jillian Keiley is really in charge of this original Twelfth Night – the first Shakespeare play she's directed since taking over at the National Arts Centre's English Theatre (and one that whets the appetite for her upcoming As You Like It at the Stratford Festival.)

The irreverent spirit of Keiley's production, however, gets a strong assist from the Old Trout Puppet Workshop – the Calgary-based team behind such flights of fancy as Famous Puppet Death Scenes and the video for Feist's Honey, Honey.

The Old Trouts (Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer) have designed a storybook theatre within the NAC's main theatre inspired by the Baroque theatre at the Cesky Krumlov castle just outside of Prague.

And their visual direction of the show, in a style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python, is entertaining from the get-go.

The shipwreck that happens before the play's action begins is staged here with whimsical blue waves and the ship made out of a set of hats worn on the heads of twins Viola (Janelle Cooper) and Sebastian (Tristan Lalla). As two-dimensional storm clouds and water monsters are carried across the stage, sister and brother are separated – and the ship splits apart and sinks.

Next, a little door opens in a wave closest to the audience – and Viola pulls herself through, washing up on the shore of Illyria like Alice into Wonderland.

And so it goes, ingeniously, onwards. When it is suggested that Orsino – the Illyrian count who Viola will serve and fall in love with, in disguise as a man named Cesario – hunt the hart, we see cartoonish puppets of a hunter chasing a stag fly by outside the castle's window.

Later, these puppets reappear inside of pictures hanging on the walls or dashing through the town centre – turning Shakespeare's opening pun into a running gag that underlines the theme of hearts being hunted, but not always captured.

Orsino (Quincy Armorer) wants to be with the countess Olivia (Amanda LeBlanc), but she falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia's steward Malvolio – who follows her around with an umbrella that is a dark raincloud perched atop a pole – comes to want his mistress to be his mistress.

In a comedy already full of parallels, Keiley and the Trouts give Malvolio a counterpart in Antonio, the pirate who rescues Sebastian. Here, he is another man who falls in love outside of his class and is left unsatisfied. Played by Lucinda Davis, Antonio is also another gender-bent performance – but one we choose to believe, instead of be in on like Viola/Cesario's.

This Twelfth Night is excellent at playing with the audience's double consciousness in that way – letting us see through the theatrics at one moment, then tricking us the next.

It's the detailed take on a minor character such as Antonio that makes it clear that this is a smart Twelfth Night. (Indeed, there are a number of notable performances outside of the leads: PJ Prudat is a sweetly comic Fabian, here transformed in Fabienne; Lalla, a charismatic Sebastian; and Alex McCooeye, a flat-out weird Andrew Aguecheek.)

But this is also a Twelfth Night that is laugh-out-loud funny – and not just in the usual places, such as Malvolio's discovery of the forged love letter from Olivia. (Though that is a solo turn that Dow pulls off beautifully, oscillating between dignified restraint and Three Stooges face-pulling.)

The Trouts' mad metatheatricality enlivens what, in truth, might otherwise be a somewhat bland portrayal of the central love triangle between Viola, Orsino and Olivia. And Kelly's Feste is there in human form to embody that aesthetic, being both a part of the play and making fun of it.

When Feste wishes Viola – still in disguise as Cesario – a beard, she replies: "By my troth, I'll tell thee, I am almost sick for one; though I would not have it grow on my chin."

Usually the second half of that line is delivered as an aside, but here Feste hears it loud and clear – and his response is priceless, a deliciously deadpan, "Wow."

Kelly has the wit, the slapstick skills and a great singing voice that he uses to great comic effect at the top of the play, then to moving effect at the end. I have no idea if he was born a great Shakespearean clown – he shares his birthplace with Stratford's Tom Rooney; there must be something in Saskatoon's water – or has only now achieved greatness, but I can't wait for his greatness to be thrust upon audiences again soon.