The fragrant, redwooded Festival Glen on the campus of UC Santa Cruz has always been a huge selling point for the folks at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The Glen is so beloved that the company often has trouble convincing audiences to come indoors for the one play it presents each summer in the adjacent Mainstage Theater.
That’s a pity, because this season, the indoor play is Shakespeare’s smart and farcical comedy “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” and the effect conjured by director Marco Barricelli and his cast and crew is a kind of setting every bit as fantastical as anything the Glen could offer. Plus, unlike some of the productions in the Glen, you don’t need to bring along your goose-down parka to enjoy it.
Leaning heavily on blues and blacks, Barricelli and set designer John Iacovelli envision Illyria, the Adriatic Sea port where the story is set, as a dark yet benign land of elegantly gnarled trees, a la “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and the fact that all actors are made up in harlequin white face lends this production an appealing commedia dell’arte vibe.
But what gives this “Twelfth Night” such vim and charisma is pitch-perfect casting. Get a load, for instance, of Malvolio, the gaunt and disagreeable servant to the impetuous countess Olivia. As played by actor Jerry Lloyd, Malvolio, as his name suggests, is a cadaverous old snarl in stringly black hair who is no more scary than when he attempts to smile. Lloyd, with his talent at evoking comic menace and his nimble timing, recalls Riff Raff in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
As he’s not the only one – William Elsman as the foolish suitor to Olivia, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, makes the most of his bony physicality to suggest a dolt out of his depths. And Paul Vincent O’Connor is a stand-out as Sir Toby Belch, the flatulent and rotund troublemaker, who – again with the name – is hilariously crude and gives the play its mild sense of merry vulgarity. On opening night, he down a couple of raw eggs in a glass to the audience’s astonishment. If he wasn’t already, he is now obliged to do it for every performance.
While we’re on the subject of performances, as fine as these supporting roles are, they take a back seat to that of Viola, the play’s central character, by Lenne Klingaman. “Twelfth” is, after all, a play about passion and Klingaman brings a strong and focused passion to bear on her role. For without a strong Viola, “Twelfth Night” is a just a series of giggles.
“Twelfth Night,” you’ll remember, is perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays that uses mistaken identity as a comic device. Viola is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, mourning the twin brother she is sure is dead. To take up employment in the court of Duke Orsino (Tom Gough), Viola takes on the disguise of man, calling herself Cesario, and quickly becomes one of the Duke’s most loyal servants.
What ensues is a wild tangle of Cupid’s arrows shooting in different directions. Viola, in disguise, falls heavily for the dashing Duke, who is enamored of the beautiful Olivia (Rayme Cornell). Viola/Cesario is then compelled to act as go-between in the Duke’s furious wooing of Olivia. In the process, Olivia falls for Cesario, having no clue that he is really a she.
It’s a crazy roundelay, only complicated by the mischief of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, the latter besotted by his own requited love, the latter just besotted.
In the end, this “Twelfth Night” is a whole lot of fun, an enlivening evening of comic theater, a gift wrapped in a stylish aesthetic of ribbons and bows, but nonetheless worthy of the promise of its packaging.