Against its most elaborate set yet, the painted backdrop suggesting a tropical shore framed by graceful columns, Woman's Will gives us a bright, summery Twelfth Night. Set in an atmosphere of revolutionary change as the Caribbean islands gain their independence from Spain, Shakespeare's story of a brother and sister separated by a storm at sea has everything that's hot this year, including pirates, swordfights, and girls dressed as boys.
Setting the action in the 1860s is not a bad choice, or one that feels as if it was made solely to differentiate this production of Twelfth Night from every other. The tempest is suggested by several women dancing in the Haitian style, manipulating their white skirts to create swirling waters. Andrew Aguecheek and Toby Belch swagger through the streets in the uniforms of mismatched militaries, and the air of revolutionary possibility is appropriate to the story of Viola, disguised as a man, wooing the lady Olivia on behalf of Orsino, whom Viola loves. All of which is even more complex when you remember that with Woman's Will, all of the parts are played by women.
The acting, while sunny, is uneven. Jodi Feder's Viola-as-Viola is very affecting, but her Viola-as-Cesario mostly smirks; one of her truest moments comes when Orsino (a leonine Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) tells her that women cannot love as much as men do, and we see Viola struggling with her secret. Otherwise, she doesn't seem all that affected by her loss. One important piece of information that gets lost early is that Viola and Olivia are both grieving the loss of their brothers, a point that could make Viola more effective in her pursuit of Olivia but doesn't. Just murky is the clown Feste, who sings hauntingly for a few coins but whose motivation is otherwise unclear.
That said, it's a treat watching former critic colleague and current playwright Erin Blackwell take the stage after years of absence. She makes up for lost time with a goofy, scene-stealing Andrew Aguecheek in spiffy yellow-plumed hat and Southern accent ("I am a great eater of beef and that affects my wit!") Aguecheek is teamed with Toby Belch, the very funny Tamar Cohn; the scene where they spy on Malvolio features some of the liveliest blocking of a lively production. Speaking of Malvolio, Christine Macomber's years singing operettas with the Lamplighters really shows; her speaking voice is rich and textured, and her Malvolio very serious, at least until he dons the crossed garters he thinks will win Olivia's love. The section where he's imprisoned in the house, which some companies cut, is here, but it drags perhaps because watching Feste torment Malvolio isn't really that interesting at the textual level.
Things start to get fun when Sebastian who looks exactly like Viola-as-Cesario hits town. Sebastian thinks everyone in Illyria is nuts. Beautiful women insist on marrying you on the second date and drunken hooligans roam the streets trying to pick swordfights, but gallant Elissa Dunn shows that it's a craziness that appeals. Iris Diaz also does a lot with a little as Olivia's maid Maria; she makes a great face when her part in the plot against Malvolio is found out.
Even though it's comic, it's possible to play Twelfth Night so that it ripples with loss and redemption, as CalShakes proved in its production right after 9/11. Woman's Will goes for something lighter and well suited to a afternoon in the park.
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