A Light, Swift Hour with the Bard: “Twelfth Night”

Not sure Shakespeare’s your thing?  A bit confused by the language?  Have difficulty following the plots?  You should definitely meet the Bard in the trimmed-down, sharp-focused form Denise Devin always finds for him.

This time, she’s worked her magic on Twelfth Night, a light comedy about gender confusion — and what hides under the strait-laced coats of puritans.  In this play, almost nobody is what (or who) they seem, and almost everybody falls in love with the wrong person.

Nick Abrell, Branda Lock, Zoe Canner, Kerry Kaz

We’re in Illyria, a mythical kingdom by the sea, where twins – Viola and Sebastian – have washed up on separate shores in a shipwreck.  Each fears the other is dead.  He, rescued by the sailor Antonio, resolves to search the city; she, knowing she’ll be vulnerable as a woman, decides to mourn her brother by taking on his appearance, complete with mustache.

She quickly finds a job (this is a fantasy, after all) with the local Duke; he sends this handsome new page to woo the ice queen Olivia on his behalf.  Alas for Viola, her heart isn’t in it; she’s fallen in love with her employer.  And of course, when she, as Cesario, makes the Duke’s plea, Olivia melts — with love for the messenger.

Meanwhile Sebastian, innocently mistaking Antonio’s love for intense friendship, lets his new pal guide him into town (Antonio’s been here before, and fled under a death sentence, but – all for love).

Carlos Chavez, Tomas Dakan

We also get to know some less noble folks in Olivia’s house – Sir Toby, her carousing cousin; Sir Andrew, a rich young fool in his clutches; Maria, her lady’s maid; and the steward of the estate, a humorless prune named Malvolio (“ill will” in Italian).  Malvolio tries to evict the drunken sirs, but shrewd Maria turns the tables.  She plants a forged letter confessing Olivia’s love for her servant, urging him to seize the day by dressing gaily, dancing, and madly smiling.  Which Malvolio does, goaded by his ego and his lust — for his mistress, and for the power that would come with sharing her title.

All things collide in near disaster; and all is happily resolved, in a round-robin of love and marriage (for everyone but Malvolio, who vows revenge; and Antonio, who’s 400 years ahead of his time).

The proceedings are fun, fast, and – here’s the miracle – easy to follow.  Devin manages, yet again, to edit the Shakespeare and prepare her actors so that hardly a line is lost.  The performers are lively and persuasive; they know what they’re saying, and why they’re saying it.

Branda Lock and Tomas Dakan actually look like twins, and share contagious affection when onstage together; Nick Abell gives a crisp, calmly commanding Orsino; and Zoe Canner’s Olivia is a flute-voiced vision in a cloud of lace ruff (tip o’ the hat to Devin, Lisa Peters and Jeri Batzdorff for the costuming).

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are usually played as plastered, crude buffoons; but these fellows are more like Laurel and Hardy.  Roger Weiss’ Toby has enough wits about him even when drunk to try to manipulate things, and Zack Zoda’s Andrew is wonderfully puffed up, and sweetly oblivious to his shortcomings.  Kelsey Arnold is a bit subdued as the tart-tongued fool, Feste, while Nicole A. Craig’s Maria is anything but, stepping in boldly and wittily to manage the lesser minds around her (and win her secretly sought prize).  As Antonio, Carlos Chavez brings bouncing energy and touching sincerity to his hopeless love.

Finally, there’s Malvolio.  (Many have said the play might better wear his name.)  Kerry Kaz creates not the sour, moralizing outsider we so often see, but a bustling, officious fellow at the center of things who’s blithely confident that he deserves his power – and sure that we and all reasonable people must share his prejudices.  Kaz cuts a figure more unreflectively foolish than joyless or bitter, like a game-show host who’s egregious and doesn’t know it.

When it was written, Twelfth Night – like its characters – was other than what it seemed.  A madcap comedy set in fantasyland, it nonetheless sharply mocked the Puritans who had seized control of London’s political life, and painted a less than flattering picture of the gentry they’d elbowed out of power.  And it played havoc with the gender rules of the day.  In many ways, it’s just as subversive today, as our times have come to resemble Shakespeare’s more than we wish they would.

But Devin – like the Bard – knows how to float swiftly past the barbs, so you hardly notice they’ve landed.  And the result is a light, swift hour with Shakespeare that you will understand, and enjoy, and most likely remember long after the Puritans have given up and gone home.
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Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Friday at 8:30,
Sunday at 7:00,
through May 14th.

Tickets: www.zombiejoes.com  or  (818) 202-4120.