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THEATER | STAGE REVIEW

First-Rate 'Twelfth Night' at UCI

April 30, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shakespeare, one story goes, was a hack writer. That is, he supposedly often wrote to order for pay. But what he turned out was so far above others' best efforts that the definition takes on new meaning.

In 1601, he turned out one of those jobs on order from Queen Elizabeth I as entertainment for the court celebration of the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The sheer froth and fun of "Twelfth Night," at UC Irvine's Barclay Theatre, was the result; the title, which has nothing to do with the play, was part of the joke.

Twin brother and sister Sebastian and Viola each believe the other drowned at sea. Washed ashore, Viola disguises herself as a young man and enters the service of Orsino, with whom she falls in love. But Orsino loves Olivia, who would much rather have the love of Cesario, who is really Viola in disguise. It sounds a little like an MTV sitcom called "Illyria, 90210." Shakespeare makes it more than that, and much funnier.

"Twelfth Night" is the holiday trifle Elizabeth R wanted, rich in humor, lively action and insights into what fools we mortals be. Director Eli Simon approaches the play with a chuckle, and with a laudable cast that revels in the romp. The comic edge Simon gives the production is compounded in the gorgeous 17th century costumes by John Patton, backed up with an ever-changing projection in Karen Weber's scenic design, which, under Rebel Luckau's painterly lighting, has the effect of an Yves Tanguy painting.

Andrea Deal is a marvelously effective Viola, allowing only brief glimpses of her true femininity to peek through her boyish walk and masculine swagger. Deal has a comic flair that her Viola wears well. Will Peters' super macho Orsino is sturdy and properly opaque, and handsome enough to make Viola's adoration believable. One of Simon's funniest jokes is Orsino's scene in a bathtub, with Cesario (Viola) studiously trying to keep her eyes averted.

The real joy of this production is the slapstick, tumble-down antics of Shakespeare's three stooges: Sir Toby Belch becomes a pear-shaped, potty burp of a knight in John M. Strain's outlandish but carefully restrained performance. Chris Marshall's goofy Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a delight, looking almost like something out of Dr. Suess with his outrageous coned hat and platinum fright wig. With all the pomposity and primness of a junior investigator on Kenneth Starr's staff, Chris DuVal's uptight Malvolio lights up the theater with a flashing, supercilious smile in his fateful attempt to woo Olivia, and is worth the price of admission.

Balancing the antics of these three is the bubbling cheer and sly wisdom of Eugene Douglas' Feste, a performance both stylish and original. Courtney Peterson is Olivia's maid Maria, which she plays in broad strokes, like a young Charlotte Greenwood, angular and arch, and with a winning warmth. Ashley Fuller gives a pretty standard reading of the love-besotted Olivia, but it would be pretty difficult to make more of her, particularly against the vaudeville antics that swirl around her.

BE THERE

"Twelfth Night," Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, UC Irvine. Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. (714) 854-4646 or (714) 824-2787. $13-$15. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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