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Women are the best at CAL SHAKES ‘Twelfth Night’ is not a “drag”

Malvolio Offers Hope and music with Cal Shakes Twelfth Night Cal Shakes opens their 41 first season with Shakespeare's last play Twelfth Night. Director Christopher Liam Moore does justice to one of Shakespeare’s most well-loved comedies in Cal Shakes’ production of Twelfth Night. Moore put together a stellar cast of all women (with the exception of Ted Deasy) to put an interesting twist on the historical practice of all-male casting, which is how the play would have been originally performed. Moore s take includes a nice touch of added original music, and some modern props including cell phones and mainstream beer.

Deasy’s performance as the fool Feste amidst a cast of women is a very exciting choice, but it’s a bit diluted by the fact that he plays three other minor roles, so in some senses there are four male characters played by a man. Regardless the women are incredibly strong performers and comedians. Lisa Anne Porter plays both Viola and Sebastian, shipwrecked siblings both unaware of each other’s survival.

Viola disguises herself as a man and enters the service of Duke Orsino, played to hypermasculine (and very emotional) hilarity by Rami Margron in a convincing beard. Orsino loves Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles) and sends Viola to woo her for him. Eccles shines in this role, and watching her character abandon herself to the strength of her passion over the course of the play was a gift to the audience.

The comic subplots are provided by the members of Lady Olivia’s household. Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch seems to be constantly and hilariously touching everyone’s butts, and at one point attempted to steal my wine as she made her way through the audience. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is the even drunker partner-in-crime of Belch, and Margo Hall is truly incredible in the role and brings incredible humor and life to every scene she appears in with fantastic physicality and voice. Domenique Lozano is vivaciously charming and witty as lady-in-waiting Maria, and it could be argued that Stacy Ross stole the second act as the puritanical Malvolio who suffers a reversal of fortunes.

The talent onstage is matched by the creative work done by the consistently wonderful designers and crew of Cal Shakes. Any frequent theatre-goer in the bay area has seen the excellence of the work that Nina Ball produces seemingly everywhere, and she does it again here with a beautiful set that frames the action wonderfully. A large back coffin is the centerpiece, that actors and props emerge from. Meg Neville does an amazing job with the costumes, particularly stunning are the dresses of Lady Olivia, which look absolutely marvelous. The outsized codpieces on some of the male characters are also a clever nod to the way this play (and this cast) mess with ideas of gender in performance.

Erika Chong Shuch and Dave Maier bring huge comedy and deftness in the physicality of the actors. Shuch is the Resident Movement Director and Maier is the Resident Fight Director, so every lucky actor in a Cal Shakes production gets the benefit of their expertise. Andre Pluess provides both humor and pathos in his sound design, with songs sung by Feste and seemingly controlled by his iphone, although I suspect it was really Laxmi Kumaran’s experienced hand as the stage manager that sustained that illusion.

In an interview with Dr. Laura Brueckner, Moore states that “I was so inspired by the pool of amazing women actors in the Bay Area—as a director, I just wanted to be in the room with them.” This sentiment is echoed by the audience. It was a privilege being in a theatre with them. Cal Shakes will warm up your evening in the Orinda hills, this cast is brilliant and this season take advantage of 20.00 seats sold the night of the show. Visit their website for more details

Twelfth Night

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

Tuesdays-Sundays; closes June 21

Tickets: $20 to $72

Contact: (510) 548-9666,

Photos by Jay Yamada and Kevin Berne

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