It’s the First of June and Theatricum Botanicum kicks off its 2019 season with a splendidly raucous, touchingly winsome, and furiously funny staging of William Shakespeare’s always-delightful Twelfth Night. Do I need to say that this timeless romantic comedy is set in the imaginary country of Illyria, where the lovesick Duke Orsino (Max Lawrence) pines for the grieving Countess Olivia (Christine Breihan), who wants nothing to do with him? And furthermore, that a shipwreck has cast the twins Viola (Willow Geer) and Sebastian (Cavin Mohrhardt) on the shore in different locations, saved by a heroic pair of intrepid sailors, The Sea Captain (Jacob Louis) for Viola, and Antonio, a macho sea captain (Sean McConaghy) for Sebastian. And how Viola, being a young woman in peril, has disguised herself in men’s clothing as a youth named Cesario, and fallen into service and into love with the Duke, who treats her like a favored pet oblivious of her true sex?
This production boasts a splendid troupe of vigorously unfettered comedians led by Christopher W. Jones as Olivia’s uncle, the drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, and lanky, agile Frank Weidner as the outrageously stupid Sir Andrew Aguecheek, abetted by Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria (Elizabeth Tobias), who joins in the debauchery, while Feste, the countess’s jester (Time Winters), cracks wise.
Then there is Malvolio (Melora Marshall, the Theatricum star who makes the best of every role, gender be damned), Olivia’s vain, haughty steward, who gets her comeuppance through the cruel machinations of the comics. One almost feels sorry for her at the dénouement. By the end of the play, each couple is with the right mate, Malvolio swears vengeance, and Feste sings a poignant song.
A delightful element of the show is the original music by composer and sound designer Marshall McDaniel. The incidental music is charming and many pieces of the text are sung; not really whole set-piece songs, but just enough to give the performances its own unique joy. While it is true that the actors, for the most part, are not in the main every-day singers, they are always on pitch and in time. They are un-miked, so the vast open stage is hard to fill. As the show settles in, I expect that songs will become a bit louder and more audible to the audience. There are exceptions, of course, and some of the actors are good singers. One noticeable singer is Harrison Poe, whose pure voice seems to sore high up into counter-tenor range.
The excellent direction of Ellen Geer gives the cast the liberty to play with fearless, unleashed heart and vigor. Set in the early 1800s, a few set pieces give the flavor of the time and costumes by Amy Mazzaferro support that conceit. The quartet of lovely young ladies (Moriah McAda-Salvia, Julia Stier, Anna Telfer, and Laura Wineland), along with Elizabeth Tobias, look as though they just stepped out of Pride and Prejudice, with high waisted Regency dresses and heaving bosoms. The lighting design by Zachary Moore is expansive covering not only the stage area, but illuminates deep into the hilly, woody environs of the property. Leah Haynor does props and the stage is skillfully managed by Elna Kordijan.
I love this show. I love its committed, enthusiastic energy. I laughed and laughed up to very end and even found room in my heart for Malvolio. And the outdoor setting in the crisp, evening air brought an emotional response that summoned up the memory of my Ashland days.
Twelfth Night plays in rotating rep, joined by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Moby Dick–Rehearsed opening on June 8. On June 22, Ellen Geer’s new, freely adapted version of Henrik Ibsen‘s powerful An Enemy of the People joins the season; and Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Skin of Our Teeth kicks off on July 13. All five productions will play in repertory through Sept. 29. A sixth production will open Aug. 17 on the smaller stage in the theater’s intimate S. Mark Taper Pavilion: The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn — another Pulitzer Prize winner — will star long-time Theatricum company members and real life husband-and-wife team Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in a co-production with the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Twelfth Night closes on September 28 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Topanga California (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway).