Review: `Twelfth Night’


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

Cal Shakes announces ’09 season

As the California Shakespeare Theater heads into its final show of the season (Twelfth Night), artistic director Jonathan Moscone has announced next summer’s line-up.

The season will mark Moscone’s 10th anniversary heading Cal Shakes, and he will direct Romeo and Juliet and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days starring Marsha Mason(right) in her Cal Shakes debut.

Mark Rucker, currently helming Twelfth Night, will return with Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and Aaron Posner makes his Cal Shakes debut directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rucker is a familiar face at the Bruns Amphitheater (Richard III in 2007, Romeo and Juliet in 2001), but Posner isn’t as well known. He’s the artistic director of New Jersey’s Two River Theater Company, where he recently produced Macbeth, conceived and co-directed by Posner and Teller of Penn and Teller, with magic designed by Teller.

Cal Shakes has previously produced Romeo and Juliet in 1977, 1983, 1989, 1994 and 2001; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1974, 1975, 1979, 1985, 1991, 1997 and 2002. Next season’s productions of Beckett and Coward mark the playwrights’ first appearances at Cal Shakes.

Here’s how the schedule shakes out:
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jonathan Moscone – May 27-June 21
Noel Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Mark Rucker – July 8-Aug. 2
Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Jonathan Moscone – Aug. 12-Sept. 6
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Aaron Posner – Sept. 16-Oct. 11

Season subscriptions range from $224-$112. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

Meet the twins: Alex Morf does `Twelfth Night’

And suddenly, Alex Morf was everywhere.

Not exactly, but it sure seemed that there was the Bay Area theater scene without Alex Morf, and then with him – in a big way.

The wrestler from rural Iowa came to the end of his master’s program at American Conservatory Theater, and his career quite literally took off.

While he was in his final year at ACT, he was cast as the rambunctious little brother in the mainstage production of The Rainmaker. Then, just as he was finishing his MFA, he was cast in the California Shakespeare Theater production of Pericles. Now he’s starring in Cal Shakes’ season-ending show, Twelfth Night, which opens Saturday at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

“I don’t know,” Morf says. “I spent the last three years at ACT, and it’s sort of like being kept in captivity. Then, after Rainmaker it just sort of snowballed from there. I’ve been really lucky to work with some really good people and have them want to work with me again.”

One of those repeat customers is director Mark Rucker, who cast Morf in Rainmaker and works with him again in Twelfth Night. It was Rucker’s decision to make this take on Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy a little different. Morf is playing both twins: Viola and Sebastian, who get separated in a storm at sea and are then reunited at the end. To survive in a foreign land, Viola disguises herself as a boy and causes all sorts of romantic confusion.

So see if you get that straight: Morf is playing one twin, male. He’s playing another twin, female, who’s pretending to be male.

“This is an actor’s dream,” Morf says. “I happen to be partial to Twelfth Night. I think it’s one of the masterpieces of Western literature, and Viola is one of the most interesting roles in Shakespeare – so strong, so honest, so sincere. She’s put in an impossible, aggravating situation, but it’s enjoyable and wonderful at the same time.”

This is the third time Morf has performed in Twelfth Night. Previously he played Malvolio (at St. Olaf College in Minnesota) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (at Chautauqua in western New York). Nor surprisingly, this is his first stab at Viola (Morf, at right, co-stars with Dana Green as Olivia).

“I’m not someone you look at and say, `Oh, he should be playing women,'” Morf says. “I wrestled in college. I was an athlete and stuff. But really, this is such an amazing challenge. I couldn’t do it with any other director.”

There’s certainly a practical aspect to hiring one actor to play twins: you’re guaranteed the identical twins will be identical and you don’t have to put actors in silly wigs and costumes and hope the audience suspends its disbelief.

Director Rucker also had another reason, as he explained to his star.

“There’s so much about gender in this play and the ambiguity of gender,” Morf says. “In Shakespeare’s time, the play was done with all men, which adds even more layers to the gender issue. The rules of gender in this play are what allow the play to happen. I think Mark had a lot of interest in exploring that.”

So how does a boy from Iowa end up playing a woman in the Bay Area?

In Morf’s case, it begins with parents who were supportive of his creative bent. They took their son to New York to see theater, and not just any theater: Chekhov. By the time he got to college, Morf was going to go the safe political science route, but one day in the library, he got bored.

“I started writing a play for a competition,” he recalls. “I ended up winning with a play called People Like You. I had so much fun writing it, I felt liberated. I decided I needed to be doing something creative and expressive. Haven’t looked back since.”

After a stint in a hit Minneapolis production of The Cradle Will Rock performed in an abandoned Sears building, Morf quit his day job as a high school wrestling coach and started applying to grad schools. He got into the ACT program, which he considers “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s hard to describe the intensity of the program,” he says. “You start at 9 in the morning and go until 10 at night, pretty much six days a week. You learn a lot about yourself. You learn you have a lot more secrets than you think you do. It’s a great group of people there, and I feel very lucky to have spent three years there.”

After Twelfth Night ends, Morf will do what successful Bay Area actors inevitably do: head to New York.

“I have an agent out there now,” he says. “But I hope I can continue to work out here as well. It does feel like home.”

Twelfth Night continues through Oct. 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24 at the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and Orinda BART. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-97666 or visit

Cal Shakes’ new season

California Shakespeare Theater has announced its 2008 summer season, and like this season, it’s two Shakespeares and two non-Shakespeares.

Pericles by William Shakespeare runs May 28 through June 22, directed by Joel Sass.

An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde runs July 2 through 27, directed by Jonathan Moscone.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov runs Aug. 6-31, directed by Timothy Near.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare runs Sept. 10 through Oct. 5, directed by Mark Rucker.

“This is a perfect gem of a seas — dynamic in scope and style, coupling Shakespeare’s greatest, deepest comedy with his wildest and wooliest romance,” said artistic director Moscone in a statement. “And Wilde and Chekhov both bring such elegance and passion, wit and depth.”

For information about Cal Shakes visit

Review: `Richard III’

opened June 2, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Villainy rules in Cal Shakes’ masterful Richard III
three [1/2] stars A Richard to remember

This smart, funny man can’t be all bad, can he?

When we meet the man who will become King Richard III in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, we’re completely charmed by him.

As he sheds his armor, we notice his right arm hangs limply at his side, while the hump on his back and his uneven legs have left his body twisted. But his self-deprecating wit — “…so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” — disarms us.

That’s the trick. He can make us laugh with the way he says one silly word (“lute”), but then, just as we’re basking in his glow, he tells us something important. “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain.”

As played by Reg Rogers, making his Cal Shakes debut, Richard immediately has the audience on his side, which is key in any production of Richard III. Horrible things happen because of Richard — beheadings, betrayals, fratricide, to name a few — but we like him. We really like him. It takes most of the play and a staggering body count to make us finally admit that he really is a bad egg.

At Saturday’s chilly, fog-enshrouded opening-night performance in Orinda, the audience was fully taken in by Rogers’ Richard, and that’s a sure sign of success for director Mark Rucker.

The production may be three hours, but it doesn’t feel long because Rucker moves things along at a startling pace and keeps our focus intently trained.

Erik Flatmo’s set is all rough, raw plywood and utility lights (a whole lot of utility lights, fluorescent and otherwise) as if to let us know that we’re in a kingdom in such turmoil that nothing ever gets finished. This is the time, after all, of the War of the Roses, the thorny battle between the houses of York and Lancaster to get their kings on the throne.

The warring families are so weary of fighting, and their numbers so decimated, the moment is ripe for an ambitious egoist to seize the moment and catapult himself onto the throne. That’s exactly what Richard does, putting his brother in prison and then having him murdered, taking allies into his confidence and then turning on them, and, most famously, murdering two boy princes in the Tower of London.

Rogers’ charming ferocity and his keen physicality (Richard often looks like he’s dancing or skipping, when really he’s just trying to remain upright) carry the evening without question. His Richard carries us willingly into the heart of evil, and except for all the blood and horror, it’s an enjoyable place to be.

The rest of the cast — outfitted in flowing robes by costume designer Katherine Roth — is excellent but can’t quite wrest the spotlight away from Richard, and that’s only right.

There are exceptions. Catherine Castellanos as the ousted Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, makes two memorable appearances. The first time we see her, she’s raving and cursing like a mad woman. The second, she is part of a quartet of spurned queens — Lorri Holt as Queen Elizabeth, Susannah Livingston as Richard’s wife, Anne, and Sharon Lockwood as Richard’s mother — who find strength in their shared misery and resolve to fight the tyranny.

Rucker’s production begins with Kay Starr’s 1952 hit “Wheel of Fortune,” which brings a smile before the villainy begins. But that pop song becomes the play’s theme, and in one brilliant scene, Richard even sings it himself.

Political villainy is timeless, as Shakespeare knew, and Cal Shakes’ vivid, engrossing Richard III reminds us that the really bad guys — the ones with charm and intelligence — can make us laugh and slice us in half between chuckles.

For information about Richard III, visit

Reg Rogers tackles `Richard III’

King Richard III is more than mean. He woos a grieving widow whose husband he has killed himself. He orders the murders of two child princes in the Tower of London. He kills his wife so he can marry his cousin.

But to Reg Rogers, the actor playing Richard in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, the character is not just a villain.

“He’s villainous and does bad things, but he’s got his reasons,” says Rogers, 42. “We’re trying to find the vulnerable side of a tyrant.”

Rogers pauses after he says that and laughs a little.

“Saying that makes me think of a TV movie I made about Attila the Hun, and it was sort of, you know, `The Misunderstood Attila the Hun.’ It was so bad,” Rogers says. “With Richard, it’s not quite as simple as that. He says something toward the end of the play, `Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes, which after hours give leisure to repent,’ and he’s trying to play a game he played earlier in the play, but it doesn’t work as well. He’s saying, look, I’m sorry I made the wrong choice, but f— it. I’m here now. There’s a lot going on in this guy’s head.”

Rogers has been working primarily in New York for the last few years, both on Broadway and off. He’s also been popping up in movies and on TV.

Local audiences might know him from his work with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the early ’90s, or from his most recent Bay Area appearance, in 2004 opposite Olympia Dukakis in “A Mother” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone was in Rogers’ class at Yale School of Drama and has wanted to get Rogers out here for some time.

The opportunity to work at Moscone’s outdoor theater in the Orinda Hills combined with the chance to work with another Yale classmate, director Mark Rucker, were strong pulls for Rogers, but the real deciding factor was that his pie-eating-alien services were no longer required.

Rogers had filmed a pilot for Fox called “Them,” about a terrorist cell of aliens, and that window between making the pilot and finding out if the network will pick it up allows a certain amount of freedom.

Rogers decided to use that freedom to do a play in California with his friends. Turns out that Fox didn’t care enough about the aliens, all of whom are having a hard time adjusting to the complications of pretending to be human.

“I played this sort of shrink/parole officer dealing with aliens who can’t cope with human emotions,” Rogers explains. “They’re not used to desire. My guy felt that if you let a little desire in, you build up the antibodies for it. His desire was for pie, so he had cupboards full of pie.”

From a baked-goods-hoarding E.T. to a hunchbacked monarch who would give his kingdom for a horse _ such a transition surely keeps an actor on his toes.

While working with Rucker in Santa Cruz, Rogers says, he began to feel secure in the world of Shakespeare.

“That’s when I started to figure out my approach to the language, right or wrong,” Rogers says. “Mark and I did a King Lear there, and my character, Edmund, got to talk to the audience a lot. I knew I didn’t want to take the Englishman’s approach. Now doing `Richard’ I get to try that again and see if I was crazy or not.”
Working with Rucker, his old friend and “one of my all-time favorite directors,” has been a joy, Rogers says, because his take on Shakespeare is so clear.

“That’s the goal with modern audiences: Make it clear,” Rogers says. “I’ve never seen anyone make it clearer than Mark or (former Shakespeare Santa Cruz artistic director and Cal Shakes audience favorite) Danny Scheie. They’re super smart and know how to let the story be the story rather than some other imposed thing.

“They’re also really good with actors. I’ve seen Mark go up to an actor and say the simplest, most immediate thing, as opposed to some diatribe that leaves the actor going, `What? I don’t even know what you meant, let alone what I’m supposed to do with that.’ Sometimes — and I have to be careful how I put this — a director’s notes can defeat the purpose. That’s not the case with Mark. He’s exactly right on.”

Though hardly an old fogy, Rogers says he’s been thinking the time was ripe to tackle Richard before he “got too old to twist myself up.” Still, the extreme physicality of the character — the hunch, the limp — has taken its toll.

“I’ve already hurt my back,” he says. “Yesterday I did something to a muscle I didn’t even know I had.”

As for the hump — doesn’t it always come down to Richard’s hump? — Rogers is pleased with it.
“What’s cool about the hump is that you can’t see it from the front,” he says. “You don’t see the hump until Richard wants you to see the hump. Our Richard uses his deformity like everything else — for his own gain. He’s such an actor. He’ll play `oh, poor me’ if he thinks it’ll help get him what he wants. It’s never not by choice with this guy.”

Richard III continues through June 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $32 to $60. There’s a free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. For ticket information and to read some terrific actor blogs, visit Or call 9510) 548-9666.