I don't think I'd call this a good production of Shakespeare's high-spirited sexual tease of a play. The problem isn't that the Theatre Group's Twelfth Night is staged on a shoestring -- a lot of local companies overcome that limitation -- or that many of the costumes (with the exception of Olivia's beautiful dresses) are ghastly and the scenery minimal. Nor was I bothered by the fact that director Steve Wilson used an all-female cast, though I'd thought beforehand that I might be. (An all-male version has been playing in London to rave reviews, which makes sense when you consider that in Elizabethan times, the roles of women were acted by young boys.)
The problem was mostly that some of the casting and staging decisions seemed absolute howlers. Why was Karen Slack, as Duke Orsino, dressed like the maître d' in a cheesy Italian restaurant? Why was the slightest and most delicate-boned of the women chosen to play the ostentatiously bullying Malvolio? Where did Viola, disguised as a page, get the chutzpah to embrace the Duke and touch the Countess's face? Or the Fool to physically pick up and twirl his mistress around? It's true that this Twelfth Night isn't set in Shakespeare's England and doesn't need to observe Elizabethan convention, but even today, the unwritten law of touch prevails: It's initiated by the higher-status person. Despite our current touch phobia, a doctor sometimes pats a patient's shoulder, or a teacher places a hand on a student's arm -- almost never the reverse. If the cast's indiscriminate touching was meant as a commentary on the exhilarating topsy-turviness of an all-female world, it didn't work for me.
The casting doesn't make an artistic statement, alter the power relationships between characters or expand our understanding of Twelfth Night's sexual ambiguity, partly because it's handled inconsistently. Some of the women deepen their voices, others don't. Some wear beards and seem to be genuinely trying to pass for male; some go for androgyny. Theresa Reid maintains a stern asexuality as Malvolio early in the play, then melts into vulnerable womanhood under duress.
Phoenix Theater, 1124 Santa Fe Drive
Presented by the Theatre Group
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And yet, despite all this, the cast pulled it off. I found myself delighted when Olivia and Sebastian met, and misty-eyed when Viola found Sebastian, the twin brother she'd presumed dead. So there are clearly some strengths to the production, too.
First, there are the actors' honesty and commitment, and the fact that each approaches her role -- for better or worse -- as if it had never been performed before. This allows the audience to hear the words and watch the action anew. There are also some wonderful performances, starting with Jadelynn L. Stahl as Olivia. Hers is usually a rather passive role. While Viola, disguised as a boy, attempts to win Olivia's love for Orsino (against her own will, since she loves Orsino herself), Olivia preens, smiles and finally allows herself to be seduced -- but by the presumed boy, not his master. Stahl, however, a luscious black-haired beauty, has no time for passivity. She seizes life (and sometimes poor Viola) by the scruff of the neck and shakes from it the love and happiness she craves. Dignity be damned, her emotions cannot be held back; she swings from farce to feeling on the instant. (Just one cavil: The early scenes need to be played more for melancholy; this would heighten the joyousness of the later ones.) Stahl has a rich, melodious voice as well. "Most wonderful," she murmurs when she sees Viola standing by the almost-identical Sebastian. And for a second, everything is.
C. Kelly Leo is a very good Viola, too. She's precise, expressive and passionate, though sometimes she roars from zero to sixty on the emotional speedometer too hard and fast, as if she hasn't fully mastered her own intensity. Viola is the only woman character passing for male in the original play (which in Shakespeare's time meant she'd have been a boy passing for a woman passing for a boy), and Leo is as charming a maid as she is a male. Cunningly costumed as Sebastian, Jodi Brinkman actually manages to look rather like Leo's Viola, and because she's sufficiently stronger-looking, she convinces us (almost) that she's the masculine version. Laura Steele's Sir Toby Belch has an interesting heft and carriage and is sometimes very funny. I couldn't always understand her words, however. If you put aside any preconception you've ever had about Sir Andrew Aguecheek, then Jessica Austgen's performance is brilliant. She makes no attempt to disguise her voice. She's a woman in drag, with a small black mustache, a lean and elegant physicality and a kind of dapper Bertie Wooster loopiness about her. I didn't know how to take Karen Slack's Orsino: The glossy, silver-streaked, straight black hair, Mafia shoes and perfect semi-circles of black eyebrow echoed by an arching black mustache absorbed almost all my attention. Slack has a lot of energy, and her performance is sometimes moving, though she does a bit too much arm-waving and shouting.
Theresa Reid is a fine actress. It's hard for me to imagine how she could have acted Malvolio better. She's fully into the role; her gestures are interesting and original; she speaks Shakespeare well; she creates a well-defined, interesting and complex character. But I just couldn't stop thinking how unlikely she was in that part and how much I'd like to see her in something else.