Few issues divide Shakespeare purists from mere acolytes as cleanly as the basic question of setting: when mounting the Bard’s plays, should one update the time and place? I tend to come down in favor of theatrical time travel; I like the challenge and freshness of dropping Julius Caesar into mob-era Chicago, or catapulting the shrewish Katherine into the Wild West, as CLU’s Kingsmen have attempted in past seasons. Of course, the setting should somehow inform our understanding of the play, perhaps by illuminating a confusing relationship or revealing an unexplored dimension of a character. It doesn’t always work, but trying can be half the fun.
Jessica Lynn Verdi’s adaptation of Twelfth Night, now playing at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, transports us to a Hollywood backlot in the 1930s. The pursuer and pursued, the Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia, are her leading man and lady, with lushes Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek modernized to the studio director and producer. The fool Feste morphs into a rubber-jointed Tramp à la Charlie Chaplin, the self-important steward Malvolio oozes into Olivia’s toady agent, and as for our heroine, Viola, disguised as a man — well, it’s not entirely clear. In the director’s note, Verdi writes that the Depression-era setting illustrates “the severe disconnect between our disillusioned silver screen heroes and the suffering of the everyman.” But apart from a smudge on Viola’s face in the opening scene, deprivation is all but absent from the play.
The Hollywood setting doesn’t totally hang together. Verdi can’t change lines, and so certain intractable bits, such as twins Viola and Sebastian’s noble birth, their rescue from a shipwreck, and Antonio’s alleged piracy, create more questions than answers. But this confusion doesn’t seriously detract from our enjoyment. Verdi has created a smart, playful adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most successful comedies.
Like the commanding silver screen stars they portray, Alex Choate as Orsino and Kelly Whitaker as Olivia anchor the central love stories. Cynthia Baker’s costumes make them look suitably smashing. Whitaker proves herself an adept comedienne in the second half, and the staging wonderfully exploits the height discrepancy between her and Sebastian (Michael Beck).
Choate and Olivia Heulitt as Viola don’t quite match their counterparts’ chemistry, but Choate brings surprising depth to Orsino, while Heulitt showcases her comic talents in a well-staged fight sequence with the cowardly Sir Andrew.
The subplots, which I’ve always found the tedious downside to Shakespeare’s comedies, become, in Verdi’s hands, a delight. Sirs Toby (Chris Alton) and Andrew (Joseph Mazeika) display a comfortable, boozy bonhomie, although their bankroller status stretches credulity. Transforming Feste into the Tramp (Julie Fergus) is the show’s most brilliant move. Theatrically, the fool exists alongside wealth and power, but is never of it; in cinema, the Tramp functioned as both a movie star and a social outcast. Fergus balances humor with sensitivity, poking fun but then pirouetting into a lovely ballad that offers respite and reflection for our characters.
But it’s Brian Robert Harris, Skyway’s artistic director, who steals the show as the dour Malvolio, bamboozled by the wily Maria (Kelsey Klingoffer) and his own self-regard into believing Olivia loves him. The sequence in which Harris discovers a forged letter, and his subsequent manic joy, is one of the play’s highlights. Harris’ leadership has provided clarity and coherence throughout Skyway’s transformation, but if we’re lucky, he won’t stay offstage for long.
Twelfth Night, through Feb. 10, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo, 388-5716.