Russian Shakespeare? Say DA!

I saw an extraordinary production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Thursday night in Berkeley. Below is a WEB EXCLUSIVE review. If you’re in the Bay Area this weekend, the show continues through Sunday. You should go.

You may not think you speak Russian, but you might be wrong. After seeing the Twelfth Night continuing through Sunday at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse, you may discover you understand more Russian than you realized.

It helps that the Russian men are performing a famous Shakespearean comedy, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are abbreviated supertitles to help guide us through the text.

But the amazing thing about this production — a product of the British company Cheek by Jowl and Cal Performances — is that as the play goes on, you rely less and less on the supertitles and more and more on the excellent actors.

Their broad playing style brings clarity and meaning, even if the words sound like, well, Russian.
What is the strange, international alchemy at work here? You’ve got two Brits — director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod — in charge of 13 Russian actors in a 400-year-old British play translated into Russian.

Sounds like the recipe for a mess, but in reality, this production, which originated several years ago at the Chekhov International Theatre Festival — offers some of the clearest, cleanest Shakespeare you’re likely to see.

Having a working knowledge of Twelfth Night — even if it’s just a guilty-pleasure screening of She’s the Man — is helpful because the gender-bending machinations of the plot get even twistier when played, as it was in Shakespeare’s day, by an all-male cast.

The central character is Viola, a shipwreck survivor who believes her twin brother, Sebastien, drowned in the wreck. To protect herself in a strange land, she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario.

Before you know it, Cesario is the object of affection of both the Count Orsino and the Countess Olivia.

So to be clear: you’ve got a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a boy. It’s all very Victorsky/Victorinska.

But as played by the marvelous Andrey Kuzichev, it’s easy to see why everyone falls in love with Viola/Cesario. Without overdoing it, he reminds us that he’s an intelligent young woman in disguise whose confidence only occasionally falters in the face of so much romantic intrigue.

The other revelation of this production is Dmitry Shcherbina as Malvolio, steward to the countess. An arrogant ass, Malvolio inspires the vengeful wrath of his fellow servants. They play a trick on him involving a love letter supposedly written by his mistress.

The letter speech is well known, but Shcherbina detonates it, and one monologue becomes a multi-layered three-act drama unto itself. Talk about an actor seizing the dramatic moment! Suddenly Malvolio is much more than comic relief: he’s a complex, conflicted, rather ego-blinded soul.

Donnellan and Ormerod keep their stage simple and mostly bare but ever active. The 2 1/2-hour play’s first half is all black and white, while the second half is all warm, creamy beige tones.
There’s a relaxed, realistic tone to the production, even for all the actors’ grand gesturing. The festive atmosphere is heightened by music — a nice blend of guitar- and trumpet-driven sambas — and when the happy ending comes, it’s actually more than happy. It’s touching.

Shakespeare purists might object to the trimming and shuffling of dialogue and scenes, but Donnellan, Ormerod and their Russian team have done exactly what you need to do with Shakespeare: make it fresh by making it your own.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, presented by Cal Performances and Cheek by Jowl, is at 8 p.m. Dec. 8; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 9 and 7 p.m. Dec. 10 at Zellerbach Playhouse, Bancroft Way at Dana Court, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $65. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit

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