Paul Vincent O'Connor as Sir Toby Belch (left) and William Elsman as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. (r.r. jones)
For sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to beat a Shakespearean comedy. The shipwrecks, the cases of mistaken identity, the reunion of long-lost twins, the cross-dressing, the drunks: who doesn’t love these tropes? Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s current production of Twelfth Night, built on this formula, delivers the madcap goods with style and belly laughs a-plenty—along with the peculiar sense of unease that this very odd “comedy” imparts.
The plot is classic Shakespeare. Viola, shipwrecked on Illyria’s shore and certain her twin brother Sebastian has drowned, disguises herself as the page Cesario and seeks work from Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. She also falls for him in their first meeting.
Sadly, Orsino’s special job for Cesario involves wooing the bereaved Countess Olivia on the Duke’s behalf. Cesario turns out to be very good at this, and Olivia falls in love with the cross-dressing little page. In an entertaining side story, Olivia’s drunk uncle, Sir Toby Belch, carouses harmlessly with another of Olivia’s suitors, the foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, but their mischief grows sinister when they conspire to bring down a haughty servant.
Making his Shakespeare Santa Cruz directorial debut is Marco Barricelli, whose day job is artistic director of the company. Barricelli wisely decided to set this production in no particular time but writes in his notes that with each reading he thought more and more of steampunk and Tim Burton films. As a result, John Iacovelli’s set is simple but fantastical, with spare, stylized trees that could have been plucked from a children’s book and enchanting, moody purples and blues by lighting designer Kent Dorsey. Costume designer Todd Roehrman deserves a special shout-out for his gorgeous take on this quasi-fairy tale; futuristic flourishes on otherwise vintage, whimsical costumes place us in an uncertain place in time. The decision to paint each actor’s face Renaissance-style, in white powder and rosy cheeks, was at first distracting, but that fell away and became part of the charm of this inventive production.
On opening night, three actors in supporting roles nearly absconded with the show. Paul Vincent O’Connor as Sir Toby Belch was crude, cunning and hilarious, his outrageous hair, John Lennon sunglasses and shabby bohemian jackets a visual touchstone for the production. If he’s a once-monied playboy who’s pissed his fortune away, his drinking buddy Sir Andrew (William Elsman) is a newly monied dandy who’s about to do the same—only without Sir Toby’s smarts. Elsman’s fecklessness and gangly awkwardness recall Sasha Baron Cohen in Borat, but Sir Andrew is an original creation, as avaricious as he is naïve. The two meet their match in the gaunt, puritanical Malvolio (Jerry Lloyd), a creature straight out of a Tim Burton production. His pitiful rage following his cruel treatment is heart-rending, and truly disturbing. It casts an attenuated shadow over the marriages and restorations of the comedic ending.
Other strong performances come from Shannon Warrick as the ribald Maria and the Lenne Klingman as the sensible Viola. Mark Christine as the clown does a fine job with the music, of which there is plenty. Tom Gough as Orsino is a little stiff and will hopefully find his footing. In general, though, this is a fun, entertaining production that is easily worth the price of admission, and then some.
Through Aug. 26 at the UCSC Mainstage
Tickets $33-50 ($20 rush tickets available one hour prior to selected shows)
www.shakespearesantacruz.org or 831.459.2159