Twelfth Night is one of William Shakespeare's most popular comedies, and one of the most frequently performed. There are good reasons for that. The tale of gender bending, mistaken identity and cruel pranks is also easily one of the Bard's funniest, most accessible and most versatile plays. It can be performed in pretty much any setting without the story becoming confused.
Even if you've seen dozens of productions of Twelfth Night, the current coproduction of California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts is a good reason to get excited about it anew. Opening Cal Shakes' 40th anniversary season, it's a stripped-down staging with a diverse cast of seven women, including many of the Bay Area's powerhouse actors.
All of Shakespeare's plays were originally performed by men, because women weren't allowed onstage in Elizabethan times. Whenever someone talks about doing an all-male production of Shakespeare today, however (as Shakespeare's Globe recently did on Broadway to much acclaim), it strikes a nerve because it exacerbates an already problematic situation in which there aren't nearly as many roles for women as there are for men.
There's been a refreshing trend lately, at least a small one on Bay Area stages, of all-female productions of shows that have traditionally had predominantly male casts. San Jose's Tabard Theatre just took that approach with 1776, the musical about the Founding Fathers' negotiations leading up to the Declaration of Independence, and El Cerrito's Contra Costa Civic Theatre just produced a three-woman version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised). Last fall, Shotgun Players did an all-woman staged reading of David Mamet's salesman sausage fest Glengarry Glen Ross. Up in the North Bay, Novato Theatre Company is now performing the long–existing gender-swapped female version of The Odd Couple that author Neil Simon adapted from his popular comedy (with two men in the skimpy traditionally female roles). And now there's this Twelfth Night at Intersection in San Francisco.
This is far from the first estrogen-infused local Shakespeare production, mind you. The now-defunct theater company Woman's Will performed all-female versions of Shakespeare and other classics every year in local parks. But there's a lot that's adventurous about this production besides the gender angle. Director Michelle Hensley of Minneapolis theater company Ten Thousand Things has reduced the play to its barest bones, cleverly staged and cut to accommodate each actor playing several roles. The production is touring various homeless shelters, juvenile halls and other community locations in addition to its ten-show run at Intersection for the Arts. It's performed in a small stage area with the audience seated in the round, the chairs very tightly packed together. The house lights are up for the entire show, so the expressions on onlookers' faces or actors' "backstage" activity are very much part of the experience.