Comedy out of Tragedy 

Twelfth Night

ecently Express restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman and I were talking about our post-World Trade Center difficulties in doing jobs we ordinarily love. That was before I saw a preview of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the last show of the season at Cal Shakes. Now I'm convinced, even more than before, that theater is one of the lights of our culture, whether it provides comfort, motivation, or a welcome, soul-soothing distraction, with a tremendous power not only to educate but to pull us through.

Indeed, the plot of Twelfth Night, though a comedy, flows from a tragedy and covers some very painful territory before things are resolved. At first, it looks a lot like The Comedy of Errors -- with its '20s/'30s setting, this production even looks a little like the current Sub Shakes' incarnation of Comedy. Identical twins are caught in a terrible storm at sea, rescued separately, and forced to deal with the likelihood that the other is dead. In their new home (Ephesus in Comedy, Illyria in Twelfth Night), their physical similarity gets them into trouble as they are mistaken for each other, fall in love with people who don't know who they really are, and get into implausible scrapes.

Here the similarity ends. Twelfth Night's twins are male (Sebastian) and female (Viola); they do not set out to find each other, choosing instead to passively adapt to their new homes; and the people they get involved with are nobility. Viola, who has disguised herself as the boy Cesario, falls swiftly in love with her patron, Duke Orsino, who has a (very) unrequited passion for the lovely Olivia, who is also mourning the loss of a brother. Orsino sends Viola/Cesario as an emissary to Olivia, who falls madly in love with her/him. Meanwhile, Olivia's boozy uncle Toby and his entourage are plotting a vicious prank against Olivia's priggish steward Malvolio, who secretly believes Olivia to be in love with him. Sebastian appears just in time to get dragged to the altar by Olivia -- who mistakes him for Cesario -- the twins are reunited, and almost everyone goes home happy. It's the sort of wacky mess that could only happen in the otherworldly spaces Shakespeare created, and in this production the wackiness is well-balanced with heartfelt emotion.

It seems strange to comment on the professionalism of actors, on their ability to get onstage despite whatever they're feeling and give everything they have to an audience. But these are remarkable circumstances. Most of Twelfth Night's cast has spent time in New York, in school or on stage -- Stephanie Roth Haberle (Viola), for example, went to Juilliard and has extensive off-Broadway experience, as does L. Peter Callender (Orsino), Patrick Kerr (Aguecheek), and Sean Haberle (Feste). It's a testament to the cast's collective skill and commitment that not only do they show up at all, but that the Twelfth Night they bring us is so well done. It's a gift of love in a dark time.

Stephanie Roth Haberle makes a great-looking boy, and her Viola/Cesario is brashly charming as s/he tries to win Olivia for the Duke, even though it breaks the heart of the woman hiding underneath. Here are two women (Nancy Carlin plays the elegant, impetuous Olivia) who have both lost a brother, but their responses are totally different -- one replicates the lost brother with her own body and the other swears not to go outside or show her face to anyone for seven years. One maintains her resolve much longer than the other -- Viola holds onto her disguise until she's totally convinced that she has found Sebastian (a stunningly played moment), while Olivia throws off her veil almost the moment she meets Cesario. Are they responding to the masks they have donned, one of stoic masculinity, the other of emotional femininity? Shakespeare appeared to think so, and the two actresses carry it off stylishly.

Brian Keith Russell is perfectly cast as Olivia's uncle, the anarchic, decadent Sir Toby Belch. Falstaffian in his appetites and remorseless in his mischief, Belch is instrumental in the humiliation of Malvolio -- and, eventually, his companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Russell attacks the role with gusto and a drunken confidence, playing the bawd with maids and mates alike. By contrast, Sean Haberle's Feste is dissipated and somewhat sinister, his hair and dress skewed and careless. Appropriately for a jester, he seems to be the only character who sees with clear eyes. Haberle's lean, vulpine features and burning eyes contribute to Feste's intensity, whether he's crooning into an old-fashioned microphone or taunting the imprisoned Malvolio.

I've seen a lot of Jonathan Haugen this year -- first in the Oresteia cycle at the Berkeley Rep, then in the Cal Shakes Cymbeline -- and I have to say that he's growing on me. Perhaps that's because in this play, he gets more space to spread out and reveal his character's range. Whatever the case, this is the most interesting work I've seen him do yet. Sure, Malvolio as a pompous fuss-budget is a logical role for Haugen, with his clipped syllables and haughty manner. But there's a soft underbelly to Malvolio, a longing and a vulnerability, which Haugen brings painfully to the surface. By the time the pranksters have trapped Olivia's steward and would-be husband, the audience has become sympathetic to his plight. In this production Haugen gets to unleash his voice, showing several facets of his character -- loyal, disdainful, hopeful, despondent, lascivious.

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare clearly hoped to overturn the everyday world of business, morality, and war, and replace it with a dreamlike world with pagan overtones. Scenic designer John Coyne envisions Illyria as a seriously raked stage covered in pool-table green, backed by gray clouds and a massive, slanted picture frame that looks out over the sea. With its slender, multifunctional pyramids and an abundance of white fabric, the set beautifully evokes a magical, otherworldly place. Gina Leishman's score perfectly underpins the action, especially when the musicians participate in the rowdy party that brings Malvolio's wrath down on Toby and his chums. This is a physically vibrant show, with plenty of dancing, running around, and even a sly Indiana Jones reference. It's especially impressive in light of the fact that director Jonathan Moscone (Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) has never directed Shakespeare before: This is a production that positively rings with the Bard's language and glows with humanity -- a perfect antidote to the steady media drumbeat of impending war.

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