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.
If you don't know the play, it's a tale of two shipwrecked siblings who wash up in Illyria, each believing the other one dead. Sister Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and goes to work for Duke Orsino as his emissary in wooing the Countess Olivia. The countess has no interest in Orsino but falls for the messenger instead, while Viola pines for her employer. When her identical brother wanders into the same town, mistaken-identity hijinks ensue.
Cindy Im is a bright and passionate Viola, beautifully capturing the character's keen intelligence, but also her fear of being discovered and her indignation on her master's behalf. Her Sebastian is simpler, bland and none too bright, but that helps distinguish him from his similarly dressed and otherwise identical sister. (The handsome formal attire is by costumer Naomi Arnst, based on original designs by Sonya Berlovitz.) Rami Margron is an amusingly cocky, swaggering Orsino whose love for Olivia seems to be one of many whims he gets and has his people sort out the details. Maria Candelaria's Olivia is a stern beauty who's entirely flummoxed by Cesario's unattainability, making her pursue him with the endearing awkwardness of someone unaccustomed to the role of pursuer.
Meanwhile, there's a lot of endearing awkwardness going on in Olivia's household, as her carousing uncle Sir Toby Belch and his fellow revelers plot to make a fool of the arrogant, prudish steward Malvolio, who's always spoiling their fun. They convince Malvolio that his boss Olivia is in love with him, encouraging him to make a fool of himself in wooing her.
Sir Toby Belch is always a boisterous drunk, but he's most often played to accentuate the first part of that description more that the second. Catherine Castellanos' Toby, on the other hand, is thoroughly soused, muttering with his brow knit in a vain attempt to concentrate, an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth. Castellanos forms a classic vaudeville duo with Patty Gallagher as Sir Toby's foolish sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, clowning goofily but totally effectively. Gallagher's Sir Andrew is wide-eyed with a mixture of puppy-dog eagerness to please and absolute terror of doing the wrong thing, while of course he never manages to do a single thing right.
Nancy Carlin is an amusingly haughty and stuffy Malvolio who's all too willing to do most of the work of deluding himself. Masterminding the shaming of the steward is a wry and mischievous Margron as Maria, Olivia's chambermaid. Sarita Ocón relishes the chaos as the amiable fool Feste and doubles as Sebastian's adoring comrade Antonio. Candelaria also plays a plain-spoken sea captain, and Carlin populates the rest of Illyria as Orsino's faithful servant, a no-nonsense policeman and a dotty parson.
There are a few elements of Hensley's staging that might be more suitable to one of Shakespeare's more magic-infused stories such as A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest; scene changes are marked by actors dancing through carrying fabric fluttering behind above their heads, and Olive Mitra's omnipresent musical accompaniment (composed by Peter Vitale) is heavy on the tinkly wind chimes, as well as comedic sound effects. It's strange that the actors move the pieces of Erica Zaffarano's minimal set around as much as they do, because the few green-painted poles with wire twisted around them don't suggest any particular place, and rearranging them doesn't really convey a change of location.
Overall, though, the production is fast-paced and broad in a way that both does justice to the material and should make it welcoming to theatrical newcomers. Most of all, it reminds you how damn funny the play is in the first place. And the splendid cast really shows why these actors should get a chance to play great roles like these more often, traditional casting be damned.
Twelfth Night runs through March 2, 2014 at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit calshakes.org.