Alex Morf (left) is Viola disguised as Cesario and Stephen Barker Turner is Count Orsino in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night. Photos by Kevin Berne
Director’s vision weighs heavily on Cal Shakes’ `Twelfth Night’
It’s not often you leave a Shakespeare play and feel like you need to take a shower.
That’s sort of the overwhelming sensation that emanates from California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night.
What is usually one of Shakespeare’s most moving romantic comedies becomes, in the hands of director Mark Rucker, a bizarre mess of a play that feels like the painful morning after a 12-day bender. Give the director credit for bringing something new to an oft-produced play, but his oppressive directorial vision often gets in the way of the storytelling.
Unlike TheatreWorks’ ’60s hippie version of Twelfth Night last year, Rucker’s production is hardly cute. It takes place in some sort of giant Studio 54 vault (set by David Zinn) with disco balls strewn amid the ultra-mod, abused furniture (you don’t even want to know what’s been happening on those grimy couches). There’s a tacky beach scene photo mural in one corner and a man wearing a bunny suit confined to a cage in another. The lights (by Thom Weaver) range from neon to fluorescent to trance-y-dance-y.
Clint Ramos’ costumes evoke the late ’70s, early ’80s (with the men in tights fighting their own version of the Battle of the Bulge), and the general mood is one of debauched days and degenerate nights – a party that has lasted too long and no one is very happy about it.
This is a heavy layer to impose on Twelfth Night, but Rucker goes even further to complicate matters by having one actor – a game Alex Morf – play both Viola and Sebastian, twins who are separated in a storm-wracked shipwreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and their presence in the kingdom of Ilyria leads to confusion and, ultimately, what is supposed to be an emotional reunion.
The play’s primary focus is on Viola, who, to protect herself in a foreign land, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and begins working for Count Orsino (Stephen Barker Turner). She falls in love with him, but in this production it’s hard to see why because he’s a miserable, melancholy drunk with no apparent redeeming qualities (though he does sport a nice white tux at play’s end).
Cesario is sent as an emissary of love on the Duke’s behalf to woo the Countess Olivia (Dana Green), who is deep in mourning over her dead brother. Cesario’s wooing is too effective, and she falls in love with a person she thinks is a clever young man.
Olivia’s court is a mess. Her drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Murray) and his idiotic cohort, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Hiatt), do nothing but drink, carouse and cause trouble. They are aided by the jester Feste (Danny Scheie, adorable in a dress), maid Maria (Catherine Castellanos) and the bunny-suited Fabian (Liam Vincent).
The target of their sozzled wrath is Olivia’s right-hand man, Malvolio, played here with gender-bending mirth by Sharon Lockwood. There has likely never been a Malvolio who looked more ridiculous in yellow stockings and cross-laced garters.
The malicious high jinks practiced by Sir Toby et al come across as particularly mean in this production and its aura of chilly dissoluteness.
There are elements of Rucker’s production that work well – Andre Pluess’ music, for one, though he doesn’t adhere to the ‘70s-‘80s theme much. Scheie’s vocal performance on several songs is mesmerizing, and it’s amusing when Sir Toby begins to sing, and the tune is borrowed from “Now I’m a Believer.” One of the evening’s highlights, in fact, comes in the pre-show number performed by the cast, thanking the production’s sponsors with a tune borrowed from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
Morf is actually very good as Viola and Sebastian – he’s got pluck and passion — but he needed a director with a stronger conception to see him through. All through the nearly three-hour play I was worried about how Rucker would stage the twins’ reunion at the end. Alas, he cheats, and there’s nothing even enjoyably theatrical about it.
In 2001 Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone directed a beautiful, moving Twelfth Night that, it turns out, was the exact opposite of this one. It’s fascinating to see how one play can be so diametrically opposed to itself in the hands of different directors.
Moscone directed a play I felt a deep connection to and admiration for, and Rucker directed a play I’m not even sure I really like.
Twelfth Night continues through Oct. 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.