For several years, the lack of strong roles for women has been the talk of the theater world, lighting up blogs and theater-related websites. With the problem so prominently under discussion these days, Santa Rosa Junior College’s currently running production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is eye-opening, to say the least.
Marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the show employs what it’s calling an “original practices” approach.
For one thing, the set by Peter Crompton resembles that of a traditional Elizabethan theater. The lighting is a clever approximation of candlelight, with massive chandeliers that are carefully “lit” by stagehands before the show, then hoisted to dangle up over the stage. Maryanne Scozzari’s sumptuous costumes are carefully authentic, beautifully representative of what actors would have been wearing in Shakespeare’s day.
But the boldest of all is the casting.
As was the practice during Shakespeare’s day, when it was illegal for women to perform on stage, all of the roles—including the characters of Viola, Olivia, and Mariah—are played by men. When they play men, they dress as men, but when they play women, it’s all about corsets and bum rolls and wigs.
Okay. Alright. Such stuff might have been the norm four centuries ago, but can it work today?
It can, and it does. Brilliantly.
With a smart, pace-perfect style that’s both funny and ferocious, director Leslie McCauley capably transcends the usual pitfalls of “stunt casting,” employing a committed and perceptive cast, all engaged in an inspired dramaturgical treasure hunt for the countless buried gags and inside jokes that Shakespeare—working under the constraints and limitations of 16th century theater—so carefully and cleverly embedded in his script. In so doing, McCauley and her SRJC team of actors and technicians have uncovered comedic gems and pleasant surprises that most other productions, in their quest for updated relevance, usually miss entirely.
The story, of course, is all about artifice leading to deeper truth.
Following a shipwreck that drowned most of the crew and passengers, the grieving survivor Viola, played with straightforward seriousness by Matt Heredia, disguises herself as a young man named Cesario and presents herself as a servant to the local Count Orsino (Evan Held), who’s lovesick and pining for the lovely Lady Olivia, played marvelously by Kot Takehashi, who sensitively moves Olivia from a state of mourning over the recent loss of her father and brother, into a loopy state of over-the-moon ecstasy as she finds herself falling for Cesario, who of course, is actually Viola in boy drag.
Adding to the madness are subplots involving butlers, fools, drunken knights, conniving maids, and the inevitable eventual arrival of Sebastian, Viola’s presumed-drowned identical brother.
The entire cast is strong, playing the ludicrousness of the story without losing the essential realness and humanity of the characters—regardless of what those characters are wearing.
Sweet, inventive and a constant delight, SRJC’s ‘Twelfth Night’ might push a few buttons, but it will definitely spark some modern conversation about the need for better opportunities for female artists.
This, in and of itself, makes the show worth seeing.
That the show turns out to be so genuinely entertaining, is all the more reason to buy a ticket.
‘Twelfth Night’ runs through May 8 at Burbank Auditorium, on the JC campus. Visit theatrearts.santarosa.edu for tickets and information.