Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

May 31

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

FOR MORE INFORMAITON
California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

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