Shakespearean gender bender

Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night” is a fun romp, even though the play’s fluid themes of sexuality and gender can seem a little muddy

THEATER REVIEW

Music might be the “food of love,” as Shakespeare so eloquently puts it in “Twelfth Night,” but cross-dressing seems to rank up there on the list of effective aphrodisiacs, too.

Would Lady Olivia, the noblewoman who falls head over heels for Cesario, the pretty-girl-disguised-as-pretty-boy, be quite so smitten if instead of more masculine footwear “his” heels were high? Does same-sex attraction play a part? Directors and actors have toyed with the play’s fluid themes of gender, sexuality and outward appearance for centuries now.

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Work crush: Renee Newlove, left, as Viola disguised as Cesario; and Russell Noland as the Duke in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night.” Photo / Victor Trejo

I’m not sure that Jacob Sherwood, who directs a fun and often accomplished production of “Twelfth Night” for Woodward Shakespeare Festival, has a strong point of view on the mixed-up-sexes approach of the play, other than to just sort of toss everyone into the pool and create a lot of good-natured splashing. Viola (the heroine’s real name) disguising herself as a man is written into the play, of course. (And in Shakespeare’s time, with boys playing women roles, there would already have been a sense of gender-bending for the audience.)

Then Sherwood adds a couple of more jaunty twists: Sebastian, who is Viola’s twin brother, is played by a woman in this production. And so is Antonio, Sebastian’s male friend, though the pronouns in the text referring to the character are switched to “she.” (The homoerotic underpinnings of Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship have been thoroughly examined by scholars.) Is casting two women in these roles supposed to be gender-blind casting that the audience simply absorbs and then ignores, or is it a commentary on the cross-dressing shenanigans Shakespeare wrote into the play? It’s a bit much to keep track of, and I’m not convinced it’s worthwhile trying. My head started to hurt.

Still, Sherwood has a whimsical directorial style and a knack for bringing out engaging performances from actors of varying skill levels. One of the challenges Woodward Shakespeare Festival has faced in recent years is a deep enough talent pool to fill out an entire cast, including minor characters, that can adequately perform the text. This production, however, has an across-the-board competence that (almost always) works.

‘Twelfth Night,’ 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through July 8, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park. General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.

Renee Newlove gives us a snappy Viola/Cesario, who after a shipwreck sets her romantic sights on Duke Orsino (nicely played by Russell Noland), entering his employ as a servant. Things get wacky when Cesario is sent by the Duke to woo Lady Olivia in his name — and she in turn falls for Cesario.

The play’s comic subplot is probably even better known than the main storyline, as a group of rowdy conspirators, led by the fool, Feste (a standout Joshua Taber), and a constantly inebriated relative, Sir Toby Belch (Casey Ballard, in a bit of true gender-blind casting) try to trick Olivia’s steward, the pompous Malvolio (an amusing James Schott) into thinking his boss has fallen for him. The petty subterfuge includes a fake letter encouraging Malvolio to entice his lady by wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smile constantly in her presence, both traits she abhors. (Somehow I missed the cross-gartered part, but the costume Malvolio wears, designed by Celeste Johnson, offers a nuclear explosion of yellow, which combined with Schott’s crisp comic timing makes for an amusing interlude, indeed.)

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Image in yellow: James Schott is Malvolio in “Twelfth Night.” Photo / Victor Trejo

I confess to not being able to completely track the Malvolio subplot at the end, when his rather mean colleagues pretend to lock him in an insane asylum — I missed the “pretend” part, whether out of inattention or cuts in the text — but it’s not too hard to figure out what happens after that.

What I like most about the production is Sherwood’s frisky direction, which he infuses with a bawdy, butt-wiggling silliness. (“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage,” Feste quips, and there’s no doubt exactly what’s hanging and that its size does matter.) Sherwood has an obvious affection for these characters, and by the end of a warm evening at Woodward Park, you probably will, too.

A further note on the weather: I attended “Twelfth Night” on a heinously hot day, when the temperature was projected to reach 109 degrees, and I did just fine in terms of comfort level. It was a little warm during the first 45 minutes or so, but the breeze off the river kicked up, and by the end of the show, it felt downright pleasant. There’s a reason rich people live on the Bluffs.


Correction: Here’s a numbskull move that I made last night while writing this review: I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s new strange and wonderful adaptation of “The Tempest” and got my handsome young Shakespearean men mixed up. Viola’s twin brother in “Twelfth Night” is Sebastian, not Ferdinand.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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