Butches & femmes
in 'Twelfth Night'
by Erin Blackwell
Love is a many-splendored thing and the most dangerous drug on the planet. Shakespeare knew this better than anyone, and set out to prove his theorem in the 1601 comedy hit Twelfth Night, now experiencing a same-sex revival directed by Minneapolis-based Michelle Hensley at Intersection for the Arts, co-produced by California Shakespeare Theater.
"I love the way Twelfth Night explores how falling in love can be an escape from enormous pain, while at the same time taking a clear look at the not always happy consequences of abandoning reality and reason to plunge into love's delirium," said the diminutive ash-blonde director to the press release. "Shakespeare performed the tale with a single-sex cast, so I wanted to find out what would happen if the cast was only women instead of only men."
The Bard crammed almost every known comedic shtick into his 10th comedy, with a full range of torture techniques, from mental to physical, including public humiliation, kidnap and imprisonment. He pushes the edge of comedy over the brink of despair into total loss of faith with one's fellows. This, 10 years before his retirement play, The Tempest , saw him abandon his magic arts forever.
Will might be free of his plays, but we never will be. They are robust chroniclers of human behavior in all its moods, follies, vices, virtues, manias, intrigues, farces, surprises and their transcendence. Even if the middle class deserts him, people in need of rehabilitation will provide a captive audience for the most encyclopedic poetic genius this side of Agatha Christie. Tour sites for this production include Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Central City SRO Collaborative, Civicorp, Eastside Arts Alliance, OpenHouse, Woolf House, and Youth Uprising.
Of the multiple plot-threads in Twelfth Night – including doppelganger siblings, male and female, separated by shipwreck – the one that continues to baffle us is The Martyrdom of Malvolio. If this priggish butler, enamored of his Lady and ambitious for his personal promotion to nobility, were the lead in The Tragedy of Malvolio, he'd shock us less. His fall is a tragic fall, based on a tragic flaw, somewhere between pride, envy, and wrath.
The questions Malvolio poses resonate with many of us, although they're old enough to be considered properly chivalric: Why am I, who devote myself to the service of my Lady, not recognized for my nobility of soul? Why does the drunken rabble invade my territory, and I too weak, because unauthorized, to expel or domesticate it? Why am I placed in this false position? Why am I denied power?
Terrifyingly, this vulnerability is played upon by drunken lout Sir Toby Belch, in conspiracy with Her Ladyship's maid Maria, who tricks Malvolio with a forged letter. The audience is privy to the plot, and we spy on Malvolio along with the conspirators, and laugh at his ready acceptance of a preposterous promotion from servant to man of the house. We laugh and think that's the end of it. But it's only the beginning. Belch is a heartless bully who won't be satisfied until Malvolio's been thoroughly shamed for his willingness to believe in a consummation he's devoutly wished.
Expert Shakespearean Nancy Carlin brings the requisite bittersweet gravitas to Malvolio, inadvertantly illustrating the butch lesbian's existential dilemma with ridiculous yet melancholy dignity. She's well-matched by the penetratingly gutsy Catherine Castellanos as her nemesis Belch. I wish the tomboyish Maria Candelaria would femme-up Her Ladyship so I knew what all the fuss was about. Androgynous Cindy Im, graceful and personable, cast as both Viola and her lost brother, forgets to demarcate her male and female halves. Rami Margron similarly seems much the same whether playing the smug Duke or the trickster Maria, except Maria wears an apron. Patty Gallagher fails to locate the still center of Andrew Aguecheek's folly. Sarita Ocon plays multiple roles with piratical panache.
The surprise hit of the production is a man named Olive Mitra, a versatile musician who accompanies the action on bass fiddle, snare drum, cymbals, vibraphone, ocean drum, wind chimes, two-by-fours, water jug, gong, tambourine, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something.
Plays Thurs.-Sun., Feb. 20-March 2, at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., SF. Evening performances begin at 8 p.m.; there will also be two Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Feb. 23 & March 2. Tickets are $20 each, available online at www.calshakes.org or by phone at (510) 548-9666.