The introvert in me was a little nervous about the premise of Alchemical Theatre‘s production of Twelfth Night, the company’s second collaboration with the Lumina Arts Festival. I kept hearing those typical terms that are used to create panic in the more social anxious theatre goer: Immersive theatre. Audience participation. Experiential experience. Actors encouraged to “interact” with the spectators. Luckily what transpired was a beautifully rendered piece of theatre that both illuminated the historicity of the play, while brining new and fresh ideas. And don’t fear, dear reader, I never felt truly out of my comfort zone. (Panic attack averted.)

Twelfth Night is the usual Shakespeare comedy fare of mistaken identities, long lost twins, and love triangles. It’s fun enough to keep the Shakespeare fan interested, but Chris Marino’s direction crafts something engaging and magical even for the casual audience member. At the heart of the play are twins, sister Viola (Esther Williamson) and brother Sebastian (Paul Teal), separated by a shipwreck in the play’s opening moments. Marino has placed the world in a 1920s-inspired setting, but the world feels more expressionistic than literal. Max Lydy‘s set design transforms UNCW’s SRO theatre and creates a world where anything can happen. Random brick-a-brack litter the walls and ceiling of the theatre: a hodgepodge of antique chairs, chandeliers, and stray paintings here and there. The disarray of objects gives the impression of items lost or washed ashore. The seating itself was part of the design, as audience members were seated in a mix of antique-style period seating as well as generic folding chairs (this will be important later). Adrian Varnum‘s eerie and melancholic musical composition (played live!) acts as a guide through the play.

The curtain speech (one of the most fun I’ve seen in a long time) performed by the non-Equity actors: (Josh Browner, Tony Choufani, and Katherine Carr) promised the play would be a unique experience with some ground rules. Audience members, they explained, sitting in the period-style seats, could be asked at any time to be moved by the actors, to hold props, or sat upon. Think of it as Shakespeare with a splash zone. Folks in regular folding chairs were off limits. Adding to this immersion, audience members were also invited to move around and enjoy the play from different vantage points. The play was in the round, so this was a welcome invitation. I didn’t see anyone take advantage of this, but fortunately John McCall’s lighting design gave the play a picture perfect glow from any angle.

The performances were competent and strong across the board. Ashley Strand stood out as the over-the-top Sir Andrew, and his natural comedic abilities helped to keep the play afloat. Keegan Siebken’s singing fool Feste was a showstopper, giving the play an absurdist twist, aided by Varnum’s subtle music. Anthony Policy added some fun with his Italian-American-inspired Fabian, straight out of an early Martin Scorsese film.

The term “magic of the theatre” is thrown around a lot in certain circles, but Alchemical Theatre’s Twelfth Night truly captured something special, and, yes, “magical” in Shakespeare’s words.

Twelfth Night continues through Saturday, July 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.