Arts Listings

Cal Shakes Stages the Bard’s ‘Twelfth Night’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:44:00 AM

“How have you made division of yourself?” Twelfth Night, or What You Will, now onstage outdoors at CalShakes’ Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda, like other Bardic comedies, realizes some of its many confusions from love and some from questions of identity.  

Taking the conceit of shipwrecked and separated twins thrown into a scene of unrequited and triangular affairs of the heart from the romances of antiquity, Shakespeare plays with basic assumptions and questions of existence and meaning, multiplying the scene of recognition from conventional romantic comedy and tragedy and reflecting it in a series of sideshow mirrors, amid much festive jocularity, clownish trickery and revelry at winter holiday’s end. 

Often considered the cream of his elusive, sometimes bittersweet comedies on love, Twelfth Night, as “La Nuit des rois” (after the three kings, the wise men of Epiphany), proved, in its stylized but simplified staging by Jacques Copeau, one of the seminal productions of early 20th century drama, a point of departure for French modern theater and a touchstone for much of the movement-oriented “physical” theater that was to follow. 

The sense is carnivalesque. The subtitle (often the allegorical “caption” blazoning Elizabethan plays) is reminiscent of the inscription above the door of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme: “Do What You Will.”  

The antics are all over the map, and director Mark Rucker throws the kitchen sink at the text and the stage, decorated by David Zinn in hot, clashing colors, with a big, glossy foreground photo of a tropical beach at sunset, bright foam couches and roll-around wet bars scattered across it like an airport lounge, under the backdrop of an enormous, tangled grid, sometimes pulsing with light. 

A cage in the corner holds pink rabbit-eared Fabian (Liam Vincent), others passing him drinks, long before he enters the action speaking in a ditz German accent. Feste the clown (Danny Scheie) is on rollerskates, an old Scheie-ism, decked out in bathing suits, seashell bras, whatever.  

The overloading cloys at first, then makes the production go flat. Speaking of the conflation of painting and writing in certain Impressionist novels, V. S. Pritchett wrote, “The confusion ... need not be coloured; indeed ... if the parts are too prismatically brilliant, the whole will become grey instead of luminous.” Twelfth Night is a luminous comedy, with rich, very dense language and (speaking of painting) a Manneristic sense of perspective that brings different sensibilities, different planes of human existence, into focus simultaneously, with all resultant ambiguity surrounding the stage—and every word, every movement or gesture on it—like a halo. 

At the close of the holiday season, and of the comedy, marriage celebrates the union of opposites discovered out of the comic confusion. In too many ways, the CalShakes production exhausts itself along the way, subjecting what could be good performances if they were in a more coherent setting to a kind of entropy. Alex Morf, who debuted in Pericles earlier this summer, is particularly interesting, playing both shipwrecked sister Viola (who is disguised as a man and unwittingly wins the heart of melancholy Olivia [Dana Green, also new to CalShakes]) and brother Sebastian, though this doubling is not an original notion. Sharon Lockwood, cross-dressed (and gartered) as Olivia’s Puritan majordomo turned absurd suitor, Malvolio, turns in a well-delineated performance but seems out of place, or muffled.  

Associate artists like Andy Murray, Catherine Castellanos and Dan Hiatt, and comic favorites like Howard Swain, strive mightily but either seem constricted by the mix ’n’ match, mish-mash concept, or sidelined without much to do of importance—a problem in one or two other shows this season. 

“In Shakespeare,” Herman Melville wrote, “Truth is like a white doe in the woodlands,” flying from tree to tree, never visible except as a flash of whiteness—not sunbursts. The overtones are nipped in the bud. Performed at the close of summer in a riot of color, this Twelfth Night conceals a rare winter flower, unable to unfold.