Review: Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT Offers Songs of Love and Laughter in the Beautiful Woods at Theatricum Botanicum
William Shakespeare's rollicking and ever-popular comedy of mistaken identity, TWELFTH NIGHT, brings its magical combination of mischief, madness and romance into the outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum this summer where it plays in rep through September 28. Written in 1601 and first seen in the Inns of Court shortly after Christmas (hence, the title), the holiday was celebrated as a festival during which everything was made delightfully topsy-turvy, much like the world of the play's Illyria. Considered one of his finest comedies, it rivals his others in character development and plot sophistication.
Staged outdoors in the magnificent woods deep in rustic Topanga Canyon, it is easy to sit back and imagine yourself shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria with Viola (Willow Geer, her impish energy a joy to behold), a stranger in a strange land who must learn to fend for herself. Fearing that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned, Viola disguises herself as a man and seeks employment with Duke Orsino (Max Lawrence, whose booming voice and royal carriage marvelously inhabit the role to perfection). Of course, Viola soon falls in love with Orsino while acting as his love missive messenger to Lady Olivia (Christine Breihan), also in mourning, who wants nothing to do with him and instead, falls in love with the disguised Viola, now known as Cesario.
We soon learn that false appearances are the norm on this Island of Misrule, where the fool is king, the court jester is a philosopher, and hijinks among the servants are wickedly delicious. Featured in these ultra-comical roles to perfection are Christopher W. Jones as Sir Toby Belch, Melora Marshall as Malvolio, Elizabeth Tobias as Maria, Frank Weidner as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Time Winters as Feste. Adding to the fun and confusion are Sean McConaghy as Antonio and Cavin Mohrhardt as Sebastian, who arrive and throw a wrench in the works upon meeting Olivia who immediately drags Viola's twin brother to her room then marries him within a matter of hours, believing Sebastian to be Cesario. You could not ask for a more ideal cast of characters to bring The Bard's non-stop, high energy hijinks to life. And of course, all is revealed and the true lovers are matched as the play ends.
Ellen Geer directs with her usual flair and non-stop actions, while original music by composer Marshall McDaniel lends the familiar words and songs a refreshing new sound, lifting Shakespeare's elevated language to even greater heights. Costume design by Amy Mazzaferro lends credence to the time and imaginary setting while allowing actors to move freely. And yes, Malora Marshall has the time of her life flaunting Malvolio's yellow stockings and frilly panties!
For those unfamiliar with Theatricum Botanicum, which has been named "One of the 50 Coolest Places in Los Angeles" by Buzz magazine, "One of Southern California's most beguiling theater experiences" by Sunset magazine, and "Best Theater in the Woods" by the LA Weekly, Theatricum's beginnings can be traced to the early 1950s when Will Geer, a victim of the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist (before he became known as the beloved Grandpa on The Waltons), opened a theater for blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property in Topanga. Friends such as Ford Rainey, John Randolph and Woody Guthrie joined him on the dirt stage for vigorous performances and inspired grassroots activism, while the audiences sat on railroad ties. Today, two outdoor amphitheaters are situated in the natural canyon ravine, where audiences are able to relax and enjoy the wilderness during an afternoon or evening's performance.
Unlike most theaters in the L.A. area that stage continuous runs of a single play, Theatricum offers a cross section of theatre using a company of actors who perform each of the plays in repertory, making it possible to see all six plays in a single summer weekend. This year, along with TWELFTH NIGHT, audiences can enjoy Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, MOBY DICK-REHEASED (a "whale of a tale" adapted by the great Orson Welles from Herman Melville's novel), Ellen Geer's new, freely adapted version of Henrik Ibsen's powerful AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, and Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH through Sept. 29.
A sixth production opens August 17 on the smaller stage in the theater's intimate S. Mark Taper Pavilion: THE GIN GAME by D.L. Coburn, another Pulitzer Prize winner starring long-time Theatricum company members and real-life husband-and-wife team Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in a co-production with the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Tickets for all plays range from $10 - $42; children 4 and under are free. Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, call 310-455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com. The outdoor amphitheaters are terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic before a performance.
Photo credit: Ian Flanders