(Garden Grove, CA) July 19, 2013 – Question: What is the best way to create a theatrical comedy that incorporates mistaken identity with slapstick hilarity? Answer: Be sure to have characters that are twins. William Shakespeare went the full gambit with this comedic methodology in his farcical The Comedy of Errors, where he utilized two sets of twins to create mischievous chaos. But with Twelfth Night (or What you Will), his beloved Viola and Sebastian become the catalysts of madcap in the small country of Illyria, where a duke tries to romance a countess and a group of malcontents—lead by a man named, ahem, Belch—try to embarrass an uptight puritan named Malvolio. In the hands of a seasoned theater company, these antics that occur in Twelfth Night can appeal to even those who experience a Shakespearean production for the first time. And this most certainly applies to a certain theater group in Orange County. Led by the talented Karissa Vacker, John Frederick Jones and especially John Walcutt, Shakespeare Orange County’s season opener is a romantic and humorous crowd pleaser.
It all begins with a storm and song; in the latter case, a song given by a wise fool named Feste (played with sophisticated charm and wit by co-director Alyssa Bradac, who has grown phenomenally through her many appearances at Shakespeare Orange County). As the rains fall, Viola (Karissa Vacker) washes up on the shores of Illyria. Saddened in thinking that her twin brother Sebastian (Shaun Anthony) perished in the tempest, Viola adapts to the new land, disguises herself as a young man named Cesario, and soon offers her (his) services to Duke Orsino (Jeffrey James Lippold). The proud duke orders his young page to send romantic messages to the Countess Olivia (Marisa Costa) on his behalf. Meanwhile, Sir Toby Belch (John Frederick Jones)—a randy, drunken rogue and cousin to Olivia—plots a devious scheme to embarrass and shame the countess’s steward Malvolio (John Walcutt), a pompous civil servant who rarely, if ever, smiles. With the help of the doltish fop Sir Andrew Agucheek (an effectively effete Kevin Swanstrom), the brassy maid Maria (a hilariously sexy Amanda Arbues), Feste, and a servant named Fabian (a charismatic Michael Drace Fountain), Belch sets his plans into motion. But when Viola and Sebastian enter the picture, all these meticulous plans go out the window and outrageous adventures occur.
One of the main challenges that an actress faces in playing Viola (while in disguise as Cesario) is she must have the ability to walk that fine line by showing the former’s tender sensitivity but also exuding a type of distinguished chivalry that composes the male disguise, without it being overly masculine and stereotypical. And Vacker’s portrayal of this heroine maintains that proper balance consistently throughout the production. She adds layers of polite dignity and strength when standing up to Olivia regarding the duke’s love for her, even though Viola’s own love for the duke slowly grows with each passing scene. Her stage presence, especially during her monologues to the audience, is strong and her comedic timing with Olivia is pitch-perfect. Vacker’s chemistry with her main co-stars—Anthony, Lippold, and Costa—is flawless. This can be said for Anthony’s Sebastian. Although his stage time is less than Vacker’s, this SOC regular once again makes the most with his scenes by mixing courage with self-deprecating humor, especially when Olivia mistakes him for Cesario. Costa’s Olivia combines a regal grace with a misguided determination to woo Cesario, not knowing Viola’s true identity. And although Lippold’s Orsino is a little stiff in the beginning of the play, he does relax later and adds comedic touches that enhance his leading-man stature.
But it is the comedic side story of Twelfth Night that adds the cherry to the cake, courtesy of two stage veterans. John Frederick Jones has been gracing the SOC stage since the beginning, always providing multilayered dimensionality with each character that he has portrayed. Jones’s Belch is a rascal and a schemer, through and through. However, he interlaces his boorish crudity with moments of wit and class. His comedic chemistry is not only magical in terms of the laughs he generates for his own outlandish antics and his masterful eloquence of the Bard’s poetics, but he also allows his younger co-stars that share the scenes with him—specifically Swanstrom, Fountain, and most notably Arbues—to organically evolve within their roles and shine with their own stage presence.
And this especially can be said for John Walcutt’s Malvolio. With his appearances in Julius Caesar and Richard III, Walcutt has not only delivered powerhouse performances, he—like Jones—seems to bring more from his talented younger co-stars, never overwhelming them. And he does so here as the brooding Malvolio, finally showing his comedic side after playing psychopaths in his two previous appearances. Walcutt once again travels the unconventional road in painting Malvolio with slow brush strokes. He starts off patiently showing Malvolio as a humorless prig. But then during the famous “letter scene,” Walcutt unpeels the repression away, showing subtle elements of, dare it be mentioned, Elvis-like playfulness. And when he’s deceived into thinking the countess Olivia loves him, Walcutt lets loose with unrestrained abandon—wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings—while still giving touching expressiveness with his monologues. Best of all, Walcutt never demonizes Malvolio; he creates actual sympathy for this lonely man, which makes the practical jokers look like the villains in the end.
With these wonderful performances, as well as the fluidic direction of fellow Co-director Tomas F. Bradac, Twelfth Night becomes a pleasant season opener at Shakespeare Orange County, preparing the audiences for the blood and guts drama of their next production: The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Twelfth Night (or What You Will) opened July 18 and runs to August 3
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by Amy Tabback and Jordan Kubat