Among William Shakespeare's most tried and true comedies, Twelfth Night is also one of the most adaptable, fitting nicely in the beach, the bayou, or what you will. Countless settings have been tried, but few have tried the patience more than Mark Rucker's Studio 54-themed production at California Shakespeare Theater's Orinda outdoor amphitheater.
David Zinn's set evokes a disco's backroom, littered with couches, mirrorballs, and neon lights, and there's muffled bass thumping as if from a nearby dance floor. Once a cringeworthy ensemble donor thank-you to the tune of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" is out of the way, the pop-pastiche songs in the play itself are solidly sung by Danny Scheie as the fool.
Castaway Viola dresses up as a boy to serve Duke Orsino and falls in love with him. Orsino sends him/her to woo the Countess Olivia for him, but the countess falls in love with the messenger instead. The confusion is exacerbated by Viola's twin brother Sebastian, and various high jinks. Viola is played by Alex Morf, who's not at all androgynous. Men played all the parts in Shakespeare's day, but Morf acts less like a woman rather than an effeminate man wearing unconvincing drag. Morf is stronger as seldom-seen Sebastian, and the twins' reunion is inventively staged.
Some performances shine through the hangover haze, such as Andy Murray and Dan Hiatt as boorish Sir Toby Belch and geeky Sir Andrew Aguecheek, although their drinking scenes make one nostalgic for the stronger ones they recently shared in Uncle Vanya.
Scheie cuts through the nonsense as a keen and cutting Feste, festooned in ludicrous drag by Clint Ramos. A Snidely Whiplash-like Sharon Lockwood makes an appropriately pompous Malvolio, Olivia's sneering steward who's tortured by Toby and his cronies, and Dana Green is an effervescent Olivia.
Stephen Barker Turner is a drugged out and disheveled Orsino, complaining about his unrequited love for Olivia while frolicking with his shirtless pool boys. That he's a jerk is nothing new, but the morning-after decadence of this staging is so thick that any romance in it just feels cheap.
Meanwhile, Butterfield 8 Theatre Company is staging another of Shakespeare's comedies, The Merchant of Venice, on a much smaller scale in a downtown Concord storefront. It's worth mentioning that it's a comedy, because all the romance and merry japes are overshadowed by Shylock, the bloodthirsty Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of a forfeited debtor's flesh.
The titular merchant Antonio borrows from Shylock to pay for his friend Bassanio's voyage to woo the heiress Portia. When Antonio's ship doesn't come in as planned, he's unable to pay the debt that the often spat-upon Jew is disinclined to forgive.
Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech is taken as evidence that Shakespeare himself wouldn't join the spitting, but balanced against that is the fact that Shylock is a cruel and petty character, and everyone delights in his downfall.
Almost everyone, anyway. Maureen-Theresa Williams' adaptation alters the usual happy-goyim ending to underscore how tragically harsh Shylock's comeuppance is.
John Butterfield's staging is a somber affair, slow paced and low energy. The comic bits are undermined by rushed delivery, particularly Nick Wong as the otherwise charming Bassanio, who doubles amusingly if confusingly as Portia's other suitors. Bassanio and Elizabeth A. Bell's Portia are too mild-mannered to hold interest in the love scenes, but Portia lights up when it's time to cross-dress and save the day.
Alan Cameron, whose Lady Bracknell was a highlight of Butterfield's The Importance of Being Earnest last season, also uses feminine intonation as Shylock, raising the question of how many oppressed minority groups he's intended to represent, but he aptly captures the moneylender's steely resolve.
To a modern audience it's hard to see Antonio, who's willing to die for his friend's happiness, and not conclude that he's in love with Bassanio. (There's also an Antonio in Twelfth Night who displays similarly selfless man-love for Sebastian, but The Tempest's Antonio remains safely closeted for the moment.)
Donald L. Hardy does a nice job of conveying that love subtly in his melancholy Antonio's lingering stares, but this staging makes it explicit that the chemistry is mutual. It's an interesting choice, because it makes Bassanio's playful reunion with his bride uncomfortable. Charming as he is, his intentions are unreadable. When he and his band of rowdies go wooing ladies including Shylock's daughter (played spiritedly by erstwhile Express colleague Lisa Drostova), it's impossible to tell if they're in it for love or money. The one love we can be sure of is Antonio's, and it's an impossible standard to live up to.
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