Robert Richmond is fast becoming an essential cog in the wheels of the Folger Elizabethan Theatre. Earlier this season, he directed Shakespeare's "Henry V," the best-selling production in Folger's history. Now he turns his imaginative sights to "Twelfth Night," moving seamlessly from a dramatic study of a hero faced with an impending war to a bubbling concoction of fantasy and reality.

"The two plays are entirely different," Richmond said. " 'Henry V' is masculine and violent, so I knew we had to focus in this play on an elegant, whimsical period of time. Events take place on the last day of the Christmas period, the Twelfth Night, when many societies enjoy festivities and merrymaking. In some homes, a Christmas pudding is served. Inside is a bean waiting to be discovered. The person who gets it is king for a day. The subtitle for the play is 'What You Will,' or what you wish for. Many people who find the bean wish for love, but nothing is guaranteed. This is a story about the many forms of love: unconditional love, unrequited love, passionate love, undeserved love, self love and true love.

"The characters are stuck in Illyria, a place that cannot move forward until the ebb and flow of fate and time push them onward. I love the early 20th century, when the world is changing and new possibilities are emerging, so I decided that the setting would be in a remote place on the coast of Ireland where the sinking of the Lusitania took place in 1915. That, in turn, gave me the notion that Illyria would be under water, a great jumping off place for the hopes and fears suggested by a sunken luxury liner, where fantasy and reality collide in a whirling, circular motion.

'Twelfth Night'
» Where: Folger Elizabethan Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE
» When: Through June 9
» Info: $30 to $68; 202-544-7077;

"To create this location, we developed a one-unit set that is slightly a dream world, suggesting the scope of the universe. The costumes are trimmed with lace, and the lighting is a fiery prism of colors. Because Twelfth Night celebrations include dance, everyone is learning to ballroom dance for the opening number, an ensemble of dancing people out of which each character emerges.

"We show how the world is changing at this period of time through music and dance by incorporating the classical influence of works by Chopin and Satie at the turn of the century, before giving way to popular songs and ballads. A Celtic flavor to some of the music stresses the Irish connection."

Richmond, a native of Hastings, England, studied theater at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow before embarking on a career that has focused primarily on Shakespeare. Once you know the Bard of Avon, he points out, you can act in or direct anything. Good fortune smiled broadly when he happened upon an ad looking for an actor who could play a trumpet. Being musically adept, he applied and soon found himself working with Aquila Theatre, a professional theater touring company that performs great classic works across the globe.

"Being a bossy actor with ideas, I fell into directing within a few months," he said. "Eleven years ago, I brought our 'Julius Caesar' to the Folger and was introduced to everyone here. In the meantime, I took a position at the University of South Carolina teaching the nuts and bolts of directing. I believe it's time to give back and focus on the next generation of directors, so I'm bringing along an assistant to Washington, one of my graduate students. I'll also bring a former student who will play the role of Sebastian.

"Along with teaching, I freelance quite a bit, and that brought me back to the Folger. During the past few seasons, I've directed 'Henry VIII' and 'Othello' here, and I'll be back for 'Richard III' next season. Now that his bones have been found, there will be even more interest in him."

Richmond's fascination with Elizabethan and Native American history brought him together with William Ivey Long, the designer of "The Lost Colony." The longest-running symphonic drama in America is about the mysterious disappearance of early settlers. He took the 1937 script and kept it traditional, while upgrading it for today's audiences. This past summer was the 75th anniversary of the epic show on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

"On a perfect night, it's magical," he said. "Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' is equally magical and a beautiful play. Some of the characters discover that their wish comes true; for others, the wish becomes a nightmare."