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A Night of Theater

Shmuel Thaler

Ship to Shore: The sea captain (Wilson D. Michaels) comfortsViola (Adria Woomer-Stewart) before a shipwreck in "Twelfth Night."

Shakespeare Santa Cruz updates 'Twelfth Night' with a light hand

By Anne Gelhaus

'TWELFTH NIGHT," the production that opened Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 15th season last weekend, is a testament to the company's maturation--and proof that the years haven't dulled its creative edge. Although director Tin Ocel sticks to SSC's tradition of setting the action in a place and time that modern audiences will recognize, he also gives the work room to speak for itself.

The shore upon which Viola (Adria Woomer-Stewart) washes up more closely resembles Oslo, Norway, at the turn of the century than it does Illyria. Thanks in large part to the reproduction of Edward William Cooke's painting Beaching a Pink, Schevenengen, which serves as the backdrop to the show's single set, Kevin Adams' scenic design is simple enough to be serviceable in the outdoor Festival Glen and yet opulent enough to evoke the wealthy lifestyles the characters enjoy.

B. Modern's elegant costume designs help separate those who control the wealth from those who are controlled by it. In Twelfth Night, however, it's often hard to tell who's really pulling the strings, and to his credit, Ocel (one of three directors making their SSC debuts this season) does not ask his actors to sharply define their characters' ambiguities. Ironically, this tactic allows the cast to delve into the play's textures and complexities and pull out some amazing performances.

James Newcomb is a standout as Feste, a jester who's wiser than most of those who call him a fool. Newcomb plays his role with a melancholy wit; his Feste is smart enough to understand the follies those around him are undertaking but powerless to do anything save warn them of the error of their ways. In the scene in which Feste takes a letter from Malvolio (James Winker), who has been imprisoned in an asylum as the result of a practical joke at his expense, Newcomb plays the jester as a very reluctant accomplice to the prank, turning what could be a darkly humorous scene into a poignant moment.

Winker also adds humanity to what could be a strictly comedic role. Although his Malvolio is a stuffed shirt just begging to be destarched, his attempts to woo Olivia (Luck Hari) are so pathetic that his plight becomes sympathetic. It's hard not to root for Malvolio when he vows revenge on those who have wronged him.

The construction of Twelfth Night is unusual in that the play's pivotal subplot doesn't begin to unfold until the final scenes. When Viola's twin, Sebastian (Rick Roberts), arrives in Illyria and upends his sister's masquerade as the page Cesario, Shakespeare's oft-used comedic device of sorting out mistaken identities is tempered by the siblings' emotional reunion. In a comedy that revolves around its characters' romantic entanglements, it's significant that the play's most heartfelt moment comes in this final scene.

Twelfth Night plays in repertory through Sept. 1 at the UC­Santa Cruz Festival Glen, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15­$21. (408/459-2159)

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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