The boondoggle makes logical sense, at first. A storm capsized Viola and twin brother Sebastian’s ship off Illyria. When the ship split in two, Viola went with one half; Sebastian, lashed to the mast and gliding through the surf like a dolphin, the other. Viola fears her brother died, so she disguises herself as a eunuch and serves the local Duke, Orsino, who is wooing Olivia, whose brother has died. Both Orsino and Olivia fall for Viola, who falls for Orsino. Re-enter Sebastian, dressed exactly like Viola, and logic warps into a hall of mirrors in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Viola’s arrival and Sebastian’s late cameo create an actor’s nightmare for Illyrians. Up to this point they know their roles — are stuck in them, in fact. Orsino will play the melancholy, unrequited wooer (and, deep down, relish the attention). Olivia will don black garb — but chic, nothing off the rack — and mourn for seven years (or until more promising suitors hit town). Sir Toby Belch will persist in having his “cakes and ale” long after the 12 days of Christmas have gone. And Malvolio — in whose very name evil lurks — will dream of social usurpation. When Viola enters, Illyrians drop their roles, lines, and cues. They struggle with real feelings and, in the process, forget how to act.
One exception is Feste, the humble, “licensed fool.” The one accurate mirror in the hall, he’s living proof of Freud’s observation about jokes being an accepted form of often-harsh social criticism. Through Feste we see through the others. Yet we know almost nothing about him.
One of the joys of theatergoing is watching a large cast perform with no weak links. When each actor comes back on, you’re glad to see them, and curious about what they’ll do next. The Old Globe’s Twelfth Night, directed with flair and heart by Paul Mullins, sports such a nicely honed ensemble it’s difficult, even unfair, to single out individuals. That said, James Newcomb’s sad-eyed Feste stands out. He frames the production’s sprightly, comic antics with an ancient, this-too-shall-pass wisdom. Newcomb, who never once plays for attention or sympathy, and never quite smiles, makes Feste a disillusioned time-traveler who’s seen it all many times, including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He isn’t just a wise fool. This Feste could have written Ecclesiastes.
Patrick Page — who is having quite a summer, since he also stars as Cyrano — makes Malvolio the exact opposite. For the puritanical steward in Olivia’s household, every moment is brand new. His black hair Hitler-slicked across his forehead, his gray duds an emblem of repression, Malvolio blows one of those sailor’s whistles used at the Von Trapps’ before the arrival of Maria. Page shows that a little innocence, when spurred by ambition, can be a dangerous thing.
Katie MacNichol presents two Olivias: before and after. She begins in mourning, solemn as a statue, her speeches adroitly measured. But when Viola arrives, Olivia doesn’t just fall in love, she swan dives. MacNichol combines vocal curlicues with expert, out-of-whack physicality: Olivia’s so gone she can’t even stand upright.
Dana Green is also having quite a summer. She’s terrific as Roxanne in Cyrano — grows through Shakespeare’s “seven ages,” in fact — and she shines as wise-beyond-her-years Viola, especially amidst the play’s ship of fools — much of the latter created by Bruce Turk’s agile-inept Aguecheek, Eric Hoffmann’s hedonistic Sir Toby, and Aubrey Saverino’s Maria, a malicious dervish. Their taunts and tricks, the director shows, make for overkill in Malvolio’s punishment. He, as Page reveals, had dreams and feelings too.
Ancient Illyria’s a strange place to set a play. When called by that name, the region on the western Balkan Peninsula was a collection of tribes with no large cities. Then Rome conquered it, later the Byzantines. Director Mullins smartly resets the play on the Italian Riviera in the 1950s. The choice allows costume designer Linda Cho to work in Technicolor: everyone wears shades and floating scarves and takes snapshots with Polaroid Land Cameras. The sun shines bright, even on January sixth, and Orsino’s (a languid Gerritt VanderMeer) posse lurks in the shadows with menace and, when the occasion arises, croons doo-wop.
Except for useful props — like that sleek, polished wood motorboat that cruises downstage — Ralph Funicello keeps his set static by design, since all this production needs is a useful background that doesn’t intrude. The focus stays, rightfully, on some terrific ensemble acting and Shakespeare’s kaleidoscope of cross-gendered, and cross-gartered, mistaken identities.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park
Directed by Paul Mullins; cast: James Newcomb, Dana Green, Gerritt VanderMeer, Aubrey Saverino, Eric Hoffmann, Bruce Turk, Katie MacNichol, Patrick Page, Kevin Hoffmann, Greg Derelian; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and music, Christopher R. Walker; fight director, Steve Rankin
Playing through September 27. (Note: Twelfth Night runs in repertory.)