Around in one form or another since 1930, the Ross Valley Players have long been entertaining local audiences with a mixture of world-renowned classics, Broadway hits and contemporary plays. Notably missing from their decades-long season’s lists has been anything written by William Shakespeare. The opening production of their 89th season rectifies that.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a tale of twins (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) separated by a shipwreck surrounded with elements of impersonation, mistaken identity, unrequited love and trickery. After the ship on which she and her brother are traveling sinks, Viola (Robyn Grahn) finds herself washed up on the shore of Illyria. To better survive in the foreign, patriarchal land, she disguises herself as a lad named Cesario and finds employ with Duke Orsino (Jackson Currier).
The duke is madly in love with the perpetually brother-mourning Olivia (Melanie Bandera-Hess) and sends Cesario to represent him. Olivia falls in love with Cesario, Cesario falls in love with the duke, and chaos ensues when Viola’s supposedly drowned twin brother, Sebastian (Ian Wilcox), shows up. Adding to the mayhem is a plot by Olivia’s perpetually soused uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Steve Price), and several of the house staff to make a fool of Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Malcolm Rodgers) by making him believe that Olivia has fallen in love with him.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, and its success is usually dependent on a director finding the right balance between the love stories and the comic subplots. Director Jennifer LeBlanc’s uneven production leans heavily toward the subplot side to the point of overwhelming the lovers’ story.
It may simply be a case of casting as the actors filling the “secondary” character roles are so strong and funny in their characterizations they they steal the show. Steve Price’s hilarious Sir Toby is a marvel of inebriated unctuousness, constantly teetering on the precipice of collapse yet able to participate in the takedown of the haughty Malvolio. Malvolio’s transformation from stuffed shirt to yellow-gartered buffoon to wounded victim is well played by Rodgers.
Michel Benton Harris does the almost impossible as Toby’s patsy Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Often played as an annoyingly foppish idiot, Harris manages to underplay the role and makes the teddy-bear-carrying character cute and almost lovable.
The energy provided by these characters almost compensates for the blandness of most others. Still, it’s a noble first go-round for the Players and the Bard.
‘Twelfth Night’ runs Thursday–Sunday through Oct. 21 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. $10–$27. 415.883.4498. rossvalleyplayers.com.