Lovers and Other Strangers

Viola loves Orsino who loves Olivia who loves Viola (thinking her Cesario). The eternal triangle. Love does not come easy in Shakespeare's plays: There's always some piper or other to be paid, some complicated journey laid on the innocent by fate. But in the comedies, of course, fate's jests always turn out for the best. He who loves unwisely learns better. She who disdains love's delights will feel its sting before all is well again.

In Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, one fair maid's manly disguise begins a preposterous and hilarious series of complications--misunderstandings, mistaken identity and a little mean-spirited fun at the expense of one mean-spirited Puritan. The current CityStageEnsemble production is graced by high energy, some very good performances and a number of charming flourishes. But it lacks a strong vision and a decisive character. It is both highly entertaining and somewhat exasperating.

Shipwrecked and separated from her brother, Viola decides to pose as a boy and go into the service of the love-stricken Duke Orsino, who subsequently employs Viola (as Cesario) to woo the lady Olivia for him--also in mourning for a lost brother. Alas, that hard-hearted lady falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia's steward, Malvolio, disapproving and humorless, provokes Olivia's drunkard kinsman, Sir Toby Belch, and his cohorts into playing an extravagant practical joke on him. They want to chastise Malvolio for his hubris. So they hit him where it hurts most--in his vanity and ambitious love for Olivia. They leave a letter for him--written to resemble Olivia's own hand--that bids him behave in a manner ostensibly to please but really calculated to annoy Olivia in the extreme.

Poor Malvolio. There is so much of the nasty schoolboy about Sir Toby, most of us feel sorry for Malvolio's predicament. But we shouldn't feel too sorry for him, because as soon as he is free again, he's ready to wreak vengeance in the same old humorless way.

Malvolio is one of the great comic characters in Shakespeare. It is a difficult role, sometimes played naturalistically--as a real human being with a sour disposition and a pathetic lack of self-knowledge. But I never really like that take on Malvolio; the whole play gets thrown off-kilter when we despise or pity him too much. Much better to make him a parody of a Puritan--broadly self-righteous and vain, hilarious in his disdain for the riffraff surrounding her ladyship, and self-pitying and comic in his misery.

Kurt Soderstrom is a fine actor, but his choices for Malvolio subvert the hilarity of the role. His take is indeed naturalistic--which works well when he confronts Olivia with broad grins and yellow stockings (as the infamous letter bade him do), but makes him nearly invisible in both the earlier and later scenes. He's just not offensive enough to warrant a thorough drubbing.

Emily Newman Walton's Viola is strong, brightly intelligent and even rather sweet--Kathleen Turner without the breathy voice and slinky moves. Jacqueline Baker cultivates cool authority in her Olivia in another forceful, smart interpretation.

Kevin Stephens is adorable as Viola's brother Sebastian--despite the absurd wig. Jamil Khera brings a gentle, lionlike quality to his Orsino, making him pleasantly sensual and just a little foolish. Greg Ward's Sir Toby is harder to classify--some moments are just terrific; at others he loses the comic timing the role demands. But Terry Burnsed as the Fool, Feste, creates an endless array of spicy antics, amusing physical comedy and a smooth, insightful interpretation of this very important role. He also contributes fabulous atmosphere with the pleasantly melancholy music he plays and sings throughout.

Director Penny Walrath opens her production with a charming dance sequence--actors getting ready for the play arrange themselves around the stage and talk directly to members of the audience, setting us up for such direct contact throughout. But sometimes Walrath's pacing is off a tad, her grasp on the material not clear enough to make it clear to us.

Still, this Twelfth Night has its magic moments and its crazy good humor--as all good Twelfth Night revels were supposed to have in Shakespeare's day.

Twelfth Night, through January 30 in The Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, #206, 433-8082.


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