The current TheatreWorks production of Twelfth Night, perhaps the most beloved of William Shakespeare's numerous comedies, is a delightful, first-rate gimmick. Set in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, the play is a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon: How many times, we are meant to wonder, will the 17th-century work sync up with one of the most mythologized events of the 20th?
Frequently, it turns out, if you are Robert Kelley, who directs a disoriented Viola (wearing a form-fitting white mini-dress adorned with a Laugh-In daisy) to stand beneath a cartoony, street-corner sign that reads "Haight" and "Ashbury" as she utters "What country is this?" Cue audience titters. Duke Orsino, who is meant to resemble Jimi Hendrix, lives in an "Auditorium" whose Peter Max-ish proscenium and Wes Wilson-inspired typeface are clearly intended to invoke the Fillmore. Get it? And then there's Olivia's uncle Toby, a good-natured and blustery old leech who swills bottles of Falstaff (hats off to the props team for THAT one) and entices Olivia's hapless suitor, Andrew Aguecheek, with freshly rolled joints whenever the juxtaposition of Shakespeare's words and cannabis seem destined to get a laugh. Which, invariably, they do.
It's all in good fun, but the joke quickly wore thin for me, and not just because of the few minor visual goofs that distract from the company's otherwise careful attention to detail (sorry, but the Grateful Dead logo on the conga drum dates from 1969, and I went to the high school where the phrase "420" was coined in 1971). So what's my beef? Well, nothing all that important, I guess. Go see the thing. Get faced beforehand, if you like. It'll probably make Allison Connor's reference-riddled costumes all the richer, and Andrea Bechert's sets even more like the eye candy they are intended to be.
On the other hand, and with all due respect to Connor and Bechert, whose work is truly brilliant, one is not supposed to leave a play humming the scenery, so maybe that's what ultimately bugs me about Kelley's Twelfth Night. There's some pretty terrific acting happening up on that stage, but I found the pop-psychedelic setting distracting.
Carie Kawa is an arresting Viola and an even better Cesario, which is the disguise she assumes to weasel her way into the object of her affection, Duke Orsino's, court. Orsino, who actor Michael Gene Sullivan plays for passion rather than laughs as his Hendrix costume might have prompted, is in love with Olivia, channeled with force and abandon by Vilma Silva. Orsino decides to express his feelings to Olivia by sending Cesario to woo her on his behalf, which is not exactly how things were done during the Summer of Love, but no matter. Olivia, of course, falls for Cesario, and Kawa delivers one her best performances of the evening when she finally realizes that Olivia has designs on her Sgt. Pepper's-costumed alter-ego.
Patrick Alparone as Feste leads a band of musicians in songs written by Paul Gordon and performed live by the actors, and Shannon Warrick as Olivia's maid Maria adds spark to the scenes with uncle Toby, played by Warren David Keith, and Aguecheek, played by Darren Bridgett. Together, the actors do a wonderful job at supporting the main story of Viola/Cesario trapped by her unactionable proximity to Orsino and the misplaced affections of Olivia. So how is it that a lowly servant steals this show?
The answer is that Ron Campbell's Malvolio, Olivia's steward, is riveting. He's a prig's prig, tossing his head with little sniffs of disapproval at this or that. His performance is virtuoso, and not just when he's got the stage to himself. Indeed, his best scene, and perhaps the high point of the entire evening, occurs with the rest of the players hiding from him as they deliver their asides to his musings during mad dashes between the painted scenery, like so many bumbling Marx Brothers. Like us, they are here to witness the moment when Malvolio discovers a letter in the garden, which he opens with a funny little fake cough, as if to muffle the sound of the wax seal being violated. Written by the mischievous Maria to appear as Olivia's handiwork, the letter seems to suggest that his employer is in love with him. Watching Campbell work out the meaning of the deliberately cryptic note is a joy to behold, second only to his determination to follow the letter of the letter by summoning a smile, which, heretofore, we could not imagine crossing his expressionless face. After numerous attempts, when he finally achieves a perfectly sincere grin (shit-eating, as it would have been described in the Haight) the audience erupts in equally sincere applause.
Hence our collective confusion later in the play when Malvolio is imprisoned beneath the stage in what could be good uncle Toby's personal den of iniquity (at one point, Feste holds Malvolio's head down in the smoky depths, an action which looked to me like nothing so much as a stoner's variation on waterboarding). It is a characteristic of Twelfth Night that modern audiences tend to feel like Malvolio gets it worse than he deserves, but in this production he is so much fun to watch and so sympathetic that we feel doubly wronged on his behalf. Maybe uncle Toby's Falstaff had been laced with some bad acid, man. Bummer.
TheatreWorks' production of TwelfthNight continues through December 23, 2007 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.