Women rule in Cal Shakes’ evocative ‘Twelfth Night’

A huge black coffin sits on an otherwise empty stage in director Christopher Liam Moore’s funny and melancholy “Twelfth Night” at California Shakespeare Theater.

As the Countess Olivia wafts in, silent and veiled, it is initially a reminder that she’s grieving for the recent death of her brother.

But soon enough the wise fool Feste pops out of it, both an observer and a participant in the ensuing action.

Occasionally moved around the stage, the coffin continues as a constant and lugubrious reminder of the dark side of life.

This female-only (except for Ted Deasy, who deftly plays Feste and a few other small roles) “Twelfth Night” is wonderfully physical (Erika Chong Shuch, movement consultant): Stacy Ross’ grim and spidery-legged Malvolio (Olivia’s loyal attendant) wobbles precariously before tumbling down a few steps (and quickly recovering his aplomb); Margo Hall’s effete, dimwitted Aguecheek is in a continual comical dither, encased in an absurd ruff (inventive period costumes by Meg Neville); Catherine Castellanos’ drunken Sir Toby stumbles about buffoonishly; Rami Margron’s impetuous Duke Orsino pines not just through text but also through expressive body language.

Of course, it’s hard to ruin Shakespeare’s comedy. It’s full of mistaken identities (Viola washes ashore in Illyria, her twin brother presumed drowned, and disguises herself as a page, Cesario, to serve Orsino; said brother, Sebastian, materializes after all, confusing everybody), unrequited love (Orsino’s for Olivia; Olivia’s for Viola-as-Cesario) and one really wicked prank (played on the much-loathed, truly pitiful Malvolio).

But what makes this version special, in addition to the deft physical antics and women in male roles, are the full-blooded performances by an all-around excellent cast. Julie Eccles plays Olivia like a lustfully besotted, almost maddened teenager. As Viola/Cesario, Lisa Anne Porter’s love for Orsino is necessarily more circumspect but just as intense. (In a neat cap trick, Porter also plays Sebastian, and when both twins are onstage, the effect is surprisingly magical.)

Moore adds just the right, light touch of anachronism: cell phones and a rolling suitcase appear, as do a few contemporary songs (as well as Elizabethan ditties, including a buoyant, wistful closing number).

The delicious cavorting of Aguecheek, Sir Toby and Domenique Lozano’s sly Maria, the bumbling duel between Aguecheek and Cesario (fight choreography by Dave Maier), Ross’ all-too-human Malvolio and other comic delights contrast beautifully with the characters’ deep yearning.

REVIEW

Twelfth Night

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes June 21

Tickets: $20 to $72

Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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