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Mostly female cast enlivens ‘Twelfth Night’ at Cal Shakes

Director Christopher Liam Moore has chosen a nearly all-female cast to portray the pranksters and mixed-up lovers in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at California Shakespeare Theater.

Except for Ted Deasy, who plays Feste the fool and some minor men, the rest of the eight-member cast is all women, most of them longtime favorites of Bay Area audiences.

Set in Illyria, the story goes like this:  Olivia (Julie Eccles) is mourning the recent deaths of her father and brother and wants nothing to do with men such as Duke Orsino (Rami Margron), who ardently pursues her.

About that time, Viola (Lisa Anne Porter) washes ashore after surviving a shipwreck that she believes killed her twin brother, Sebastian (also Porter). Until she can get the lay of the land, she disguises herself as a eunuch named Cesario and offers to serve the duke. She’s strongly attracted to him, but he sends his new aide off to woo Olivia for him.

Olivia finds herself attracted to Cesario. Thus the mismatching begins.

In the meantime, Olivia’s roisterous uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Catherine Castellanos), drunkenly cavorts with his cohort, the foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), and Olivia’s maid, Maria (Domenique Lozano). They plot to make a fool of Olivia’s pompous steward, Malvolio (Stacy Ross), by making him think Olivia loves him and wants him to act and dress in a certain way.

And, unknown to  Viola, her twin, Sebastian, arrives safely from the shipwreck. Soon there are hilarious mistaken identities as one twin is taken for the other.

All turns out well with lovers properly matched, but the trickery against Malvolio goes too far, leaving him bereft.

Since men and boys played all roles in Shakespeare’s day, using a mostly female cast here works well today, especially with such accomplished performers in an ensemble cast.

Costume designer Meg Neville outfits everyone in traditional Elizabethan garb. However, there are some anachronistic props, mainly the smart phone used by Feste to cue in music (sound by Andre Pluess) and by Maria to take pictures of Malvolio when he’s ridiculously garbed.

Symbolizing the mourning that sets the initial mood, a coffin remains onstage in Nina Ball’s stark but striking set design (lit by Burke Brown). Feste rises from it at first, but later it’s used to store props like beer bottles and to imprison Malvolio.

Although all of the actors deserve praise, special mention goes to Ross as Malvolio in the comical gulling scene that ends the first act.

Moore’s direction keeps the action flowing crisply and allows for plenty of laughs. Credit goes to movement consultant Erika Chong Shuch for some brief dance scenes and to fight director Dave Maier for the fight scenes.

Taken as a whole, this 2 1/2-hour (one intermission) production is a great way to open Cal Shakes’ 2015 season with its often chilly temperatures that require warm clothing and blankets.

“Twelfth Night” will continue through June 21 at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way(off Hwy. 24), Orinda. For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

 

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