Reviewed by Judy Richter
Director Mark Rucker pushes William Shakespeare's gender-bending envelope even further than the Bard himself in California Shakespeare Theater's production of "Twelfth Night." The plot already involves a young woman playing a boy who falls in love with her male boss, who finds himself strangely attracted to this "boy" while employing him to woo a woman he professes to love. She wants nothing to do with the boss, but she's very attracted to the "boy." All gets set aright when the girl's twin brother shows up.
Rucker casts a man, Alex Morf, to play both the sister and the brother. It's well known that boys and men played the female roles in Shakespeare's day, but it's highly unlikely that the boy would have played both twins. Although Rucker's idea is intriguing, it doesn't work because Morf isn't believable in the female role of Viola, and he doesn't differentiate her clearly enough from her brother, Sebastian. Moreover, he wears blush and bright red lipstick in Viola's male persona of Cesario, thus undermining Viola's attempts to appear male. The makeup is no different for Sebastian, undermining his masculinity, too.
In another bit of unconventional casting, Sharon Lockwood plays the male role of Malvolio, the puritanical steward serving Olivia (the regal Dana Green), the countess courted by Cesario on behalf of his boss. In this case, however, Lockwood successfully portrays Malvolio as a man. In fact, she's hilarious as Malvolio is duped into believing that Olivia loves him, then vengeful as the roisterers in Olivia's court conspire against him.
All of these plot lines underscore another theme in the play -- misplaced love. Yet another example involves Sebastian's friend, Antonio (Raife Baker), whose love for Sebastian veers into the homoerotic. The lines are in the script, but the director can choose to interpret them as pure male friendship. Either approach works.
Rucker, aided by his design team -- David Zinn, set; Clint Ramos, costumes; Thom Weaver, lighting; and Andre Pluess, composer/sound -- transforms the play's Illyria into the disco era of the 1970s. He reportedly saw it as New York's famed Studio 54 in its waning days. Thus the heavy-duty drinking normally associated just with Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Murray), and his confreres moves over to the household of Count Orsino (Stephen Barker-Turner), who's just as dissolute as but less raucous than Sir Toby. It's Orsino's maudlin love for Olivia that helps to set the plot in motion. However, his opening "If music be the food of love" speech is delivered as a drunken ramble. Later, Orsino and other characters also use drugs of various kinds. It's no wonder that Olivia, who doesn't partake, wants nothing to do with him, but it's also puzzling why Viola would fall for such a man. Luckily, Barker-Turner is a skilled enough actor to deliver his lines clearly.
When people talk about this production in the future, they'll recall not only Morf's dual role as Viola and Sebastian but also Danny Scheie's audacious performance as Feste, Olivia's fool. He first shows up in quasi-drag, roller skating and wearing two sea shells on his chest as the entire cast sings its thanks to the production sponsors. Another time he wears a short net dress over the flesh-colored body suit that's the basis of his varying costumes. And no one will forget how he starts Act 2 while roller skating through the audience and playing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" on the trombone. Scheie often takes his roles over the top, but this time he's right on.
Sir Toby's partners in tomfoolery include the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Hiatt), who also would woo Olivia while Sir Toby takes his money. This is the kind of role where Hiatt, a rubber-bodied, gifted comic actor, uses his talents so impressively. Another of Sir Toby's friends is Olivia's maid, Maria (well played by Catherine Castellanos). Finally, there's Fabian (Liam Vincent), who inexplicably spends most of the first act in a cage while wearing red-patterned swim trunks and pink bunny ears. Luckily he's provided with a jacket and blanket to ward off the chilly winds in the outdoor theater. Oh -- and he has a German accent. Howard Swain makes brief appearances as the sea captain who rescues Viola and as the priest who presides over the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian. He also plays guitar as part of a small combo at various points in the play.
There's no denying that this production can be absolutely hilarious at times, but it falls short in some key areas, especially with casting a man as both Viola and Sebastian and with making Orsino so dissolute.