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Theater Review - Twelfth Night

Renewing Classics

Name: Twelfth Night, produced at Georgia Shakespeare

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Age: Shakespeare's comedy dates to around 1600 and probably immediately predates Hamlet, which the company is staging in repertory with Twelfth Night.

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The gist: Shipwrecked in Mediterranean land of Illyria, clever Viola (Courtney Patterson) disguises herself as a boy and falls in love with Duke Orsino (Brandon Dirden), who loves mournful Olivia (Crystal Dickinson), who falls for Viola, thinking she's a dude. And if that weren't complicated enough, Viola's identical twin brother, Sebastian (Joe Knezevich), shows up accompanied by a sailor (Brad Sherrill), who seems to be more than friends with him.

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Universal themes: The cross-dressing disguises and polymorphic love triangle (which, including other suitors, may be a love hexagon) reflects the malleability of gender, class and identity. The zany subplot involving the mockery of buzz-kill Malvolio (Chris Kayser) punctures Puritanism while acknowledging that pleasure can be taken to excess.

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Historical significance: It's one of Shakespeare's best comedies, full of such quotable quotes as "If music be the food of love, play on," and "Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." Recently, the teen comedy She's the Man loosely adapted the plot, while Viola inspired the Gwyneth Paltrow role in Shakespeare in Love.

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Dated qualities: By the standard of Shakespearean comedies, Twelfth Night features a relatively low percentage of jokes that rely on Elizabethan vernacular. Some lines still go over the audience's heads, and while quips like "Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian," and "She's a beagle, true bred" get laughs, you wonder if they're the laughs the Bard intended. The actors help a few jokes with the occasional "Talk to the hand!" gesture or Dickinson's literal snapped fingers after a put-down.

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Post-modern concepts: Singing fool Feste (sly Neal Ghant) beats a drum and wears a costume akin to an African storyteller or griot, although most of the costumes reflect early 19th-century England a la Jane Austen. The otherwise spare set conspicuously features a towering, rotating statue that resembles a DNA double helix, evoking the twins' shared genes and spinning like a weather vane when characters fall in love.

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Worthy of revival?: Sure. As one of Shakespeare's richest and most accessible comedies, it nearly always works, although, counting 1996's Twelfth Night: The Musical, it's Georgia Shakespeare's third staging of the play in a decade. At times, director Karen Robin's production has a sterile mood, but Patterson makes an especially warm and sympathetic Viola (never mind that her disguise would deceive no one).

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Now playing: Through July 22 in repertory with Hamlet. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 8 p.m. Georgia Shakespeare, Conant Performing Arts Center, 4484 Peachtree Road. $15-$40. 404-264-0020. www.gashakespeare.org.