Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
As her mini-storm is overtaken by the sounds of a vicious ocean storm and a shipwreck that shake the rafters of Lucie Stern Theatre, a young woman, barefoot and in wet, tattered clothes, stumbles down the aisle with two sailors following her. The three soon find themselves on the shores of Brooklyn's Coney Island during the height of Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties. What better setting and time period for Shakespeare's comedy of disguise, love triangles, revenge, foolery, and of course, love of every sort, shape, and size! Palo Alto Players' Twelfth Night is a delightful rollercoaster of hilarity that is peppered with spicy, scat-laced songs of the era (and two using the text of the Bard and twenties-style music composed by Caitlin Gjerdrum, the play's jazz singer, clown, and soon-to-be fool, Feste).
The girl washed up on the sands of Coney Island is Viola, who believes her twin brother Sebastian has been lost at sea in the wreck she barely survived. She is advised by the sailors to dress as a young man, rename herself Cesario, and enter the service of Duke Orsino. Upon offering her service, she immediately falls in love with the handsome Duke who solicits her help in wooing the wealthy countess Olivia (who wants nothing to do with the Duke). Olivia in turn quickly has stars in her eyes for the young man who is actually a woman, with Viola-now-Cesario declaring to herself and to us, "Oh, Time, thou must untangle this, not I; it is too hard a knot for me to untie."
And time it will take, for the two-hour, fifteen-minute (plus intermission) play must lead her, Olivia, Orsino, and a host of other characters high-and-low of birth through a maze of twist-and-turn amusements that will rival those on Coney Island itself, which is now on full display thanks to the imaginatively fun scenic and properties designs of Scott Ludwig. With the famed Cyclone roller coaster in the stage's background, a game booth full of alluring, stuffed animal prizes, and several, big, splashy signs decorate the scene. Passersby stop by the popcorn stand on the boardwalk as they sport the latest fashions of the era (Brook Jennings, costume designer) while kids skip around playing paddle-and-ball. And periodically filling the air are suddenly appearing musicians (five Gunn High School students) who, under the music direction of Todd L. Summers, provide an underlying score of twenties songs as the frolic of mistaken identities and misdirected love continues.
Emily Scott is wonderful as the once-Viola, now-Cesario–first with the awkwardness one might imagine a young woman would feel trying to take on the persona of a guy but then with increasing ease at wooing a reluctant Olivia for Orsino, using words and feelings that are actually her own as her love grows for him. While fixated on winning over Olivia, Orsino is more and more taken by this youth who is his mouthpiece and who looks at him with such adoringly devoted expressions. In one of her many delicious inspirations, Roneet Aliza Rahamim directs a scene celebrating in its own way June's Pride Month as Orsino's fondness and attraction for Cesario lead to his massaging the youth's shoulders while gazing on him with a look of true love. Cesario is of course a she, in love with him, who is both confused and exhilarated by the Duke's touching so intimately her, who he thinks is a him.
In his slick black suit with red shirt and hat, Orsino (Christopher Mahle) time and again tries to setup the perfect scene to impress Olivia, calling in various musicians and directing them to stand first here, then there, to play, then to stop playing before quickly demanding they leave after Olivia once again stomps off the scene. As Olivia, Kristen Kaye Lo magnificently bristles with snap and snarl when the Duke is around only to melt into coos and fluttery come-ons when Cesario arrives to try to convince her that the Orsino he/she loves is perfect for Olivia.
This being Shakespeare, of course there is much more going on from the lower ranks of society in between and even during the momentum of the societal love triangle at hand. First and foremost is the ever-present Feste, the jester and servant to Olivia, who never lacks for another antic of juggling, singing, or pulling out her trumpet in order to liven up the scene. As Feste and also off-and-on as a speakeasy jazz singer, Caitlin Gjerdrum is in many ways the star of the production. Not only does she sing with the style and sound reminiscent of recordings of early jazz greats, but she is also a clown extraordinaire, often pulling off a famous line of the Bard or an act of joking silliness in a manner quite spontaneous as if it just came to her that moment. She is also the play's truth-teller, saying things no one else can see or dares to admit seeing. As she tells Cesario/Viola at one point in a remark clearly she is directing at Cesario's master, Orsino, "Foolery, sir, does not walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere." From beginning to end, the one fool who is most brilliant in her perception of others and in her performance is Caitlin Gjerdrum's Feste.
But other fools are plentifully abundant and have their own moments of hilarity. Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's often tipsy and always silly uncle, is another of the play's dominant sources of hilarity. That feat is particularly noteworthy since Troy Johnson–a last-minute, COVID substitution–plays the ludicrous Sir Toby with much aplomb and physical agility while also holding a script. In his foppish attire of mostly yellow, Sir Toby is pilfering the visiting and quite witless but rich Sir Andrew Aguecheek as the latter pursues in great vain the hand in marriage of Toby's niece, Olivia. A role usually displaying the height of hilarity in performances of Twelfth Night, the dimwitted Sir Andrew has a less successful outing in this production as the actor portraying him too often appears stiff and awkward in the role.
Totally successful in her portrayal of Olivia's gentlewoman Maria is Gay Penter Richard, bringing flair in voice and expression as she both serves her lady and subtly woos her own target, Sir Toby. She is pulled without much hesitation into a plot by Sir Toby to make a bigger fool than he already is of the vain and nose-stuck-in-the-air Malvolio, steward of Olivia, who he ridiculously believes is secretly in love with him. Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew never lose a chance to torment in song and jokes the uptight Malvolio (superbly played by James Shelby), including a letter that Maria forges in the hand and words of her mistress to lead Malvolio to transform into the biggest of all fools as he woos the shocked and horrified Olivia with the most preposterous of smiles one might ever see on stage.
And so the hilarity continues with the arrival Olivia's twin, Sebastian (Brian Flegel), coming with the young man who pulled him out of the ocean, Antonio (Shayan Hooshmand), setting up a number of other mis-identities, a duel of seaside umbrellas, a jailing of Malvolio in a dark dungeon, and a bashing of Sir Toby's head by a Coney Island stuffed elephant. All logic must be put aside since Sebastian is, of course, dressed exactly as his sister and he quickly agrees to marry a much over-joyed Olivia, who thinks he is Cesario. But as the play's alternative title suggests, "What You Will" (or, roughly translated, "whatever") is what you get in the crazy shenanigans of Shakespeare's final and perhaps greatest comedy. There is no rhyme or reason to a lot that happens, but there is a ton of fun and funny, as directed and performed in musical merriment in this Palo Alto Players' Twelfth Night.
(An additional note: The cast of twenty-one, including the originally cast Sir Toby, Tim Farrell, and the band of five are all current students and faculty or alumnae students and staff of Palo Alto's Gunn High School, the second such collaboration between the Gunn community and Palo Alto Players.)
Twelfth Night runs through June 26, 2022, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Streaming performances run June 23 - 26. Tickets for both live and streamed performances are available online at paplayers.org or by calling the box office 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday - Friday at 650-329-0891.