Theater: Good humor

‘Twelfth Night’ mixes romance and comedy

By Charles Brousse

After opening its 2016 season with Lauren Gunderson’s satirical look at America’s obsession  with the nexus between sex and electoral politics (The Taming), Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) gets down to serious business with Twelfth Night. No, forget that I used the descriptive  “serious”—the latter’s tangle of romance and comedy is anything but.

Having seen the play performed on numerous occasions through the years, I’ve concluded that there are actually two versions, depending on when and where it’s performed: Indoors, over the winter holidays, it becomes what the title implies: A warm and cozy tale of love overcoming all obstacles to reach a satisfying conclusion for several of the principal characters, with an additional beribboned bunch of candy canes added by Viola’s reuniting with Sebastian, the brother she feared she had lost in a storm at sea. Think: A stage bathed in candlelight, soft sighs and sweet music.

The Twelfth Night of summer open-air festivals is usually quite different. Romance is still there. Calling herself Cesario and dressed in male clothing, Viola still searches for her brother and finds both him and love in the process, but these plot elements no longer dominate. Instead, comedy takes over. The play’s subtitle, What You Will, becomes code for having a knee-slapping good time.

Such is the case with the Lesley Currier-directed version currently being performed on weekends in the wooded confines of Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre. Luckily, Currier and her MSC cast have all of the tools necessary to generate laughs—and more. That last reference is to the multitalented Jeremy Vik, whose skills as a gymnast, musician, juggler and  clown in the court of Duke Orsino (Dean Linnard), ruler of the fantasy island of Illyria, amaze and delight throughout the production. You might even say that Vik steals the show, except that Daren Kelley, as Sir Toby Belch and Michael J. Hume as Sir Andrew Aguecheek are as entertaining a pair of alcohol-fueled old geezers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Falstaff is normally considered Shakespeare’s greatest comic invention, but these two—when portrayed by professionals of this caliber—could lay equal claim.

The hilarity reaches its climax in fight director Richard Pallaziol’s nicely choreographed second-act scene, in which Sir Andrew, angered by Cesario/Viola’s (Elena Wright) imagined competition for the affections of the Countess Olivia (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) and egged on by Sir Toby, engages his rival in a duel that neither of them wants or can hope to win.

With its many characters, mistaken identities and unexpected turns of plot, Twelfth Night is as difficult to describe as a computer to an Eskimo. Suffice it to say that while MSC’s production bobs along on waters that are occasionally choppy, its core of good humor remains intact to the end. Not surprising, then, that whether performed at holiday time or in the middle of August, it continues to be one of Shakespeare’s most frequently produced scripts. And, when talent such as that displayed by MSC’s lead actors—in fact, by the company’s entire ensemble and artistic staff—is brought together on a (hopefully) warm summer night, it should be an exhilarating experience for anyone who loves live theater.

I might add that the play contains a number of quotable lines. A few examples: “If music be the food of love, play on.” “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” “There is no darkness but ignorance.” (In these anxious times, when dark shadows seem to threaten from every direction, it’s an admonition worth remembering.) And my own favorite: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” Politicians of all stripes, take note.

NOW PLAYING Twelfth Night runs through August 21 in the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.

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