September 06, 2007

"Twelfth Night," North Bay Shakespeare Co.

One great 'Night'

By Mark Langton
Marin Independent Journal

Article Launched: 09/05/2007 11:14:01 PM PDT

LIKE A FUNNY, surrealist, Kabuki ballet, the North Bay Shakespeare Company has christened its new venue and inaugural season by celebrating an artistic triumph with its lusty, new interpretation of "Twelfth Night," William Shakespeare's most sexually subversive of plays.

The Artists Formerly Known as Shakespeare at Stinson, under the direction of MaryBeth Cavanaugh and the ongoing artistic direction of Jeffrey Trotter, have pulled off an undeniable winner, which opened last weekend in their spacious new home at the Hamilton Amphitheater in the former Hamilton Air Force base in Novato.

Filled with gender-bending twists of plot and sly, erotic innuendo, this most complex of Shakespeare comedies is also one of his most lyrical plays, with melancholy at its core. Clearly drawing on her five seasons as a choreographer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, director Cavanaugh tells her story in modern dress with a cast that moves almost as one - with fight scenes out of "West Side Story" and love scenes like "Swan Lake" - fully disclosing the heavy breathing and wistful sighs often hidden in this play's wildly beating heart.

It is also one of the Bard's more bizarre gender-benders. Consider the following: A count loves a lady and sends a servant - a girl dressed up as a man - to do his bidding for him. The lady falls for the male impostor, even as the male impostor falls for the count. Eventually, the male impostor's twin brother shows up - dressed exactly like his sister(!) - and marries the lady, freeing the ersatz-man to be a woman again, who then marries the count.Shakespeare loved these kind of mistaken-identity motifs, as well as neatly tied-up endings - both of which are fully realized here.

The masquerading servant with the identity crisis in this case is the shipwrecked Viola, strongly played by Valerie Weak, who washes up on the shores of Illyria to disguise herself as a boy to find employment as a servant to Orsino, the lovelorn duke of Illyria, admirably played with great dignity and operatic flair by Chiron Alston.

Witness only the beginnings of confusion: Though Orsino is besotted with the countess Olivia (Camille Thornton-Alson), Olivia, mourning the recent death of her brother, has sworn off love. Orsino sends Viola - now known as Cesario - to deliver messages of love to Olivia. Olivia dismisses the message and embraces the messenger instead, falling in love with the young "man," Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola's twin brother, Sebastian (played by UC Berkeley junior Robert Bergin), arrives on the scene, confusing the heck out of everybody - except perhaps for Feste (Kalli Jonsson), the wisest of fools, whose bemused running commentary frequently sheds darkness and light on the entire proceedings.

As if to take away his audience's pain, Shakespeare wisely provided the raucous comic relief of Sir Toby Belch, an aptly named drunken rogue, played by Kevin Karrick like a lusty Brendan Behan; Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Belch's idiot-in-waiting, played with delightful manic energy by Gendell Hernandez; and the mad steward Malvolio, hilariously played by Clive Worsley, whose preening, prancing and vocal gymnastics bring to mind those of Ed Grimley, the early Martin Short character on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

This is a wonderful cast with fine performances across the board. Nearly every exit receives an ovation and every entrance a delight. Weak's thoughtful rendering of Viola/Cesario makes her as much the watchful conscience of this play as Jonsson's Feste, who tops his harrowing portrayal as King Richard (from a past SAS production of "Richard II") with this mocking, darkly comic fool. When Feste sings the famous "come away, come away death" soliloquy (made all the more surreal last Saturday by the fortuitous tinkle of a Good Humor truck that happened to pass by), several members of the audience were audibly moved to tears. Conversely, the chorus of "Smile (Though Your Heart Is Breaking)" - written by Charlie Chaplin as his theme music for "Modern Times" and sung by Feste and several members of the cast - could use a little rehearsal.

As Viola's long-lost brother Sebastian, Bergin gives a surprisingly sophisticated performance for one so young. The same is true for Cara Burgoyne, whose libidinal Maria fills the air with one of the most wicked and authentic stage laughs you've ever heard. Also, Thornton-Alson is quite funny as the fussy, nearly frenetic countess Olivia. Hers is a much more comical take on the role than the usual, dark, scheming variety - a many-layered performance that is at once vulnerable and sly.

Honorable mentions should also go to G. Randall Wright's Antonio, an oddly noble Spanish buccaneer, and violinist Paul Festa, whose mute presence as the violinist (doubling as the priest) often set the production's tone - as did the ideal music selection of Elvis Costello's work with the Brodsky String Quartet, "The Juliet Letters," which ended Act One, and the starkly miniminalist set design by Rick Ortenblad, drawn from a palette of black, red and gray.

This is some of the most haunting, powerful, funny and engaging North Bay Shakespeare performed in recent memory. Director and cast were either born to it, achieved it or had it thrust upon them - whatever the case, this is one great "Night."

What: William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" by North Bay Shakespeare Company (formerly Shakespeare at Stinson)
Where: Hamilton Amphitheater Park, Main Gate Road, Novato
When: Through Sept. 30; 7 p.m. Fridays, 6 p.m. weekends, 10:30 a.m. matinees Sept. 14 and 28
Tickets: $16 to $30; matinees $12 for students and $16 general admission; Sept. 14 and 28 are Family and Friends Nights when groups of three or more are $14 per person.
Information: 868-1115,
Rating: 5 stars
More: A benefit to support North Bay Shakespeare Company will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 9, followed by the play at 6 p.m. $40.