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A Long, Lame Trip

December 12, 2007

TheatreWorks gives Shakespeare a hippie makeover in Twelfth Night

If I thought I could have gotten away with it, I would have devoted my entire column this week to extolling the virtues of Patrick Alparone's legs. Thrillingly encased in tight, hot-pink denim in his role as Feste the fool in TheatreWorks' production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the actor's lower half seems to take on a life of its own during the performance. Every time Alparone bends his knees, his jeans rumple ever so slightly at the crotch. When he stands with his feet apart, the denim skin accentuates the lines of his thighs. His graceful, bobbing movements about the stage bring to mind a giant flamingo preparing for flight. Music may be the food of love, but give me the excess of those gorgeous gams.

I could go on, but I'm guessing that most of my readers (not to mention the actor himself, should he chance upon this article) will throw the paper down in disgust if I do. So, with regret, I must turn my attention to other matters, as Alparone's legs are just about the only things that make sense in this otherwise baffling version of Shakespeare's 1602 comedy concerning a young woman's romantic, crossed-dressed adventures in a faraway kingdom following a shipwreck that separates her from her twin brother. It's possible, at some level, to forgive Robert Kelley for transporting the Bard's story to hippie-era San Francisco and then completely failing to draw anything meaningful from the hackneyed, flower-powered conceit. But there's no excusing the director for making us feel we need to be on hallucinogenic drugs to get our heads around the basics of character and plot.

Many people are familiar with the storyline of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's most popular works. The play is regularly staged; there have been 30 productions on Broadway since 1804, and TheatreWorks has mounted the comedy three times to date (prior productions took place in 1978 and 1985). TV and movie adaptations abound, not to mention the existence of several musicals and at least one opera. Yet even if we have a firm grasp of the plot, it's difficult to make sense of this latest revival. The opening scene loses us straight away by substituting Shakespeare's fateful shipwreck for the much less plausible idea of a VW van breaking down on the way to an antiwar protest in Golden Gate Park. I'm as willing to suspend my disbelief as much as the next theatergoer, but I still don't get how faulty spark plugs on a love bus would lead to siblings Viola and Sebastian being suddenly and violently torn apart. Here's where a joint would come in handy, I suppose.

Equally bizarre is the production's take on Feste. There are three of him. Alparone doesn't clone himself (I can hardly contain myself: three pairs of legs for the price of one!) but is frequently joined onstage by Michael Ching and Clive Worsley. With Alparone as the lead singer, the trio constitutes a band called The Fool. Together, they perform the songs from the play set to music by Paul Gordon. The simple, folk-rocky melodies are tunefully performed in a Bob-Dylan-meets-Steve-Harley-and-Cockney-Rebel style. But the conceit lacks consistency. Sometimes Feste's lines are divided among all three actors, turning the character into something of a hippie Hydra. At other times, Alparone appears onstage solo. To add to the confusion, Worsley and Ching also play other roles. This is particularly problematic for Worsley, who shifts between playing a fool musician and embodying the sea captain who rescues Sebastian without so much as a costume or accent change to indicate a shift. We were on a mystery tour, all right, but I wouldn't call it magical.

Kelley is by no means the first director to have come up with the idea of giving Twelfth Night a hippie spin. Both Pennsylvania Repertory Company and Ohio Northern University evoked the flower-power era in productions earlier this year. Princeton Rep did the same in 2006. I personally think it's about time we got over the '60s. Nevertheless, it's easy to see how a director might use the setting today to provocative effect. The free-spirited, anarchic sentiment many people associate with the Summer of Love now seems like a distant dream. A thoughtful 2007 production set in 1967 might engage us by hurling us headlong into the abyss separating the youthful hope of that long-lost past from our jaded, over-the-hill present. As Feste puts it, "Youth's a stuff will not endure."

TheatreWorks' production seems to say quite the opposite. An inane holiday mood hangs over the entire denouement. It's there in Viola's apparent lack of concern about Sebastian's disappearance at the start of the play; Carie Kawa's vacuous Viola is far more interested in dressing up as a boy than mourning her brother. The festive spirit is also present in the actors' occasional non-Shakespearean outbursts, which range from putdowns like "Crazy!" to lines regurgitated from '60s pop songs like Donovan's "Mellow Yellow."

Speaking of yellow, the Pop Art and Yellow Submarine–inspired psychedelic decor and costumes, though beautifully executed by Andrea Bechert and Allison Connor respectively, are so vibrant that they unwittingly ruin what ought to be one of the biggest coups of the play. After two hours of staring at lurid bell-bottoms and caftans and an Octopus' Garden of violent-hued flora and fauna, Malvolio's climactic entrance in his canary-colored stockings (the result of a cruel prank played on the puritanical steward by members of his household) fails to make an impression. Struggling to upstage his gaudy surroundings in tie-dyed leggings and a velvet knee-length coat, the normally flamboyant Ron Campbell can do little to mitigate the staggering sense of anticlimax. Burbling "They call me mellow yellow" as he exits is, embarrassingly, the best he can manage.

The superficiality of Kelley's emphasis on the peace, love, and happiness side of the 1960s theme ultimately leaves us feeling as if we're coming down from a fun though largely forgettable trip. I turned on and tuned in, but soon found myself dropping out. The two and a half hours passed pleasantly enough, though, enthralled as I was by those lovely, pink-denim-clad legs.



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