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. The issue has inspired debate, discussion and outcries of gender inequity. It has even provoked a spate of incendiary protest art like Courtney Meaker’s ‘That’swhatshesaid,’ in which the author compiled into one outrageous solo piece all of the lines written for female characters in the ten most popular plays currently running in America.
The show was ultimately shut down, earlier this year, on claims of copyright infringement—click ‘Here‘ to read Broadway World’s coverage of the cease and desist order—only heightening the profile of Meaker’s project.
With this lack of women’s roles so prominently in discussion right now, Santa Rosa Junior College’s currently running version of 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. The set by Peter Crompton resembles that of a traditional Elizabethan theater. The lighting is a clever approximation of candlelight, in which massive chandeliers are carefully “lit” by stagehands before the show, then hoisted up to dangle over the stage. Maryanne Scozzari’s sumptuous costumes are carefully authentic, delightfully representative of what actors would have been wearing in Shakespeare’s day (and when was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play actually set in Shakespeare’s time?).
Boldest of all is the casting.
As was the practice during Shakespeare’s day, all of the roles—including the major characters of Viola, Olivia, and Mariah—are played by men dressed up as women. To underscore this men-as-women approach, early arrivals to the theater are treated to an entertaining pre-show in which the actors are dressed, corseted and made up right there on stage, as a traditional Elizabethan band entertains on period instruments.But what of the show itself?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-minded style that is both funny and ferocious, director Leslie McCauley capably transcends the usual pitfalls of “stunt casting,” employing an engagingly committed and keenly perceptive cast 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—carefully and cleverly embedded in his script. In so doing, McCauley and her SRJC team of actors and technicians have uncovered comedic gems and 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 is lovesick and pining for the lovely Countess Olivia, played marvelously by Kot Takehashi, traversing the comedic and the truly heartfelt as Olivia moves 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 Viola, who, of course, she thinks is Cesario.
Added 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, managing to play the ludicrousness of the story without losing the essential realness of their character, regardless of what they are wearing.
Sweet, inventive and a constant delight, SRJC’s ‘Twelfth Night’ might push a few buttons, and 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. But don’t forget to arrive early. Watching a bunch of guys be squeezed into corsets is not something you want to miss.
Twelfth Night runs through May 8. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at 3:00 p.m., “A Day Under the Oaks” Burbank Auditorium at SRJC, 1501 Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa, CA 95401. (707) 527-4307. $12 to $18.