Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ at Cal Shakes (****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

(from l to r) Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch, Domenique Lozano as Maria, and Margo Hall as Andrew Aguecheek in
(from l to r) Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch, Domenique Lozano as Maria, and Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

In the Elizabethan theatre, women were not allowed on stage. All of the characters were played by men and boys. In recent years, some directors have turned the tables on this tradition, offering all women productions of Shakespeare’s plays. In Cal Shakes current incarnation of “Twelfth Night” all the characters (male and female) are played by women, with only one exception. It works.

Shakespeare’s comedies range from shallow slapstick (“The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Two Gentleman of Verona”) to richly textured poetry with tragic overtones (“The Tempest”). One of the Bard’s most wonderful and distinguishing characteristics at his best is his ability to combine comedy and pathos, laughter and tears, in exquisite balance. This astonishing and life-like depth of feeling and range of emotion in particular moments is what has endeared him to actors for generations. Nowhere is this genius more in evidence than the miraculously perfect “Twelfth Night.” It contains two parallel stories: a lighthearted love story of mistaken identities given gravity by one of the characters’ recent bereavement and the story of the stuck-up, judgmental, and fun-hating Malvolio who disrespects a Fool and is given a frightening comeuppance by said Fool and his merry, drunken friends. All ends happily, but not before deep themes of madness and death are weaved together with the love story into a wonderfully rich poetic tapestry.

Elizabethan theatre folk (audience and players) loved to amuse themselves with cross dressing. Not only were all of the female characters played by boys, but often the “girl” would be disguised as a “boy.” Indeed, Elizabethans loved masks of all sorts, and masking is a thematic element in every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Twelfth Night,” the mask involves the decision of the shipwrecked Viola, alone in a strange country, to masquerade as a boy (Cesario) for her own safety. She becomes servant to Duke Orsino, who hires her to act as his emissary to the beautiful Olivia who has been refusing his advances. The situation becomes complicated when Viola (disguised as Cesario) falls in love with Duke Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Viola (whom she thinks is a boy) when s/he pleads Orsino’s case. Yes, it’s a tangled mess. And that’s just one of the plots.

The second plot involves Olivia’s household, where her cousin, the drunkard Sir Toby Belch, is taking money (and endless rounds of drinks) from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the silly promise that Augecheek will be able to win the lady for himself. This makes an enemy of the household steward, the puritan Malvolio, who cannot tolerate drunkenness. When Malvolio tries to put the kabosh on their revelries, their clever plot for revenge is enough to nearly drive him mad (and the audience into a frenzy of laughter).

That is enough to give those unaquainted with the play a sense of the twists and turns of the complex and evocative plot. Love unrequited, grief and recovery, love of life and bitter sorrow and disappointment, humor and madness are all richly combined with song and wit. If you have ever wondered about all the fuss over William Shakespeare, this is the play that can give you a clue.

As I said at the start, director Christopher Liam Moore takes this production a step beyond the traditional cross dressing by having women play all the characters (male and female and female disguised as male), except for Festes the fool, who stands outside of and comments upon the action, like a Greek chorus in motley. The result is a barrel of fun.

Overall, this is a very capable “Twelfth Night,” with all of the humor intact, and the complex plot delivered with clarity. What makes this production something special are the comic turns by the actresses in the male parts. Each of them is exceptional. As Viola masquerading as Cesario, Lisa Anne Porter is lovely as boy and girl. Later, when she plays Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, previously thought to be lost at sea, her rapid switches between the three characters (the girl Viola, the girl Viola pretending to be the boy Cesario, and the actual boy  Sebastian) are a wonder to behold. Indeed, all of the actresses are completely convincing as men — an uninformed audience member might well not realize the performers are playing the opposite sex. But we are not uninformed, and the humor is enriched by our knowledge. Rami Margron is a handsome and seductive Duke Orsino. Catherine Castellanos is a hoot as the drunken Sir Toby Belch and Stacy Ross is a deliciously snooty Malvolio.

The showstopper of the evening was Margo Hall’s achingly funny turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Almost every gesture she makes and every word she speaks is an occasion for laughing out loud. I laugh even as I write. This is a performance not to be missed.

Domenique Lozano as the servant Maria, who hatches the plot against Malvolio, and Julie Eccles as Olivia, do well in the two female parts. And Ted Deasy is superb as Feste, the Fool, who comments from outside the action, and acts as counterpoint to the uptight Malvolio. He also steps into the action, occasionally, to take on some supporting roles, such as a gay sea captain (another one of Shakespeare’s riffs on sexuality that are peppered throughout the play).

This is not a perfect  “Twelfth Night.” But it is a highly original one, with some very unusual performances and a special comical treat in Margo Hall’s Sir Andrew.

If you don’t usually like Shakespeare, you’ll probably like this. Who wouldn’t?

“Twelfth Night” plays through June 21st at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For further information, click here.
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“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare, produced by California Shakespeare Theatre. Direcgtor: Christopher Liam Moore. Scenic Designer: Nna Ball. Costume Designer: Meg Neville. Lighting Designer: Burke Brown. Sound Designer: Andre Soffer.

Olivia: Julie Eccles. Viola/Sebastian: Lisa Anne Porter. Malvolio: Stacy Ross. Duke Orsino: Rami Margron. Sor Toby Belch: Catherine Castellanos. Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Margo Hall. Maria: Dominique Lozano. Feste: Ted Deasy.

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