July 21, 2004





'Twelfth Night' hits the beach--Venice, that is


by Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


Sunny, funny and light on its feet, Shakespeare Festival LA's new "Twelfth Night" sets the action in a convincing approximation of Venice--not the town of Shylock and gondoliers but our own slightly disreputable pocket of sun-kissed beach-bum bohemia.


With its whiplash juxtapositions--wealth and poverty, glitz and trash, creativity and recreation--L.A.'s Venice provides a colorful dramatic canvas for director Jason King Jones' crowd-friendly rendition of the Bard's beguiling comedy of confused desire and capering mischief.


Katia Kaplun's expansive painted set sketches the setting's stark beauty like a mural in 3-D; freeways and radio towers frame the promenade, with the set's pointed pinnacle subtly evoking a circus tent. Trevor Norton's lights capture the glare of SoCal sunshine, and some of its duskier shades too. After a short run in Pershing Square, with the Downtown L.A. skyline looming all around, the outdoor show moves to South Coast Botanic Gardens this weekend.


It's Feste (Cedric Hayman) who rules this beachfront property. He wakes up on a bench with his guitar and starts up Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good," attracting an impromptu jam session while skaters and joggers reel by. Appearing later in his ratty feathered cap and motley coat, Hayman's Feste proves himself a particularly apt fool, spinning out puns and puzzles with the dexterous precision of a juggler and sampling a range of soulful tunes as the occasion demands.


With a play so full of assorted pranks and pratfalls, it's something of a feat to keep Feste's foolery at the forefront, but the irresistible Hayman is up to the challenge. Without stealing focus from the play's intertwining plotlines, he earns more comic mileage per line than any Feste in memory.


Jones imagines the love-struck Duke Orsino (Geoffrey Lower) as a kind of spoiled bachelor tycoon, with an entourage to furnish his background music and schlep his art supplies around the beach in case inspiration strikes. For Olivia (Judith Moreland), the unmoved object of Orsino's affection, he conjures a wealthy African American household, with a retinue more inclined to quiet dignity.


That is, except for Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby (Harold Surratt), a tall, no-account idler in a leather jacket who can't stay off the sauce. Though a likable enough rascal, Surratt doesn't shy away from Toby's essential unpleasantness--a crucial but often overlooked element of this pathetic troublemaker's arc, which descends from irrepressible ribaldry to drunken disgrace as his schemes crash like a hangover in the light of day.


As the more-or-less deserving victim of one such scheme, Olivia's officious steward Malvolio, Tim Choate plays his scenes like a virtuoso; he starts with a knowing scowl of self-love before rocketing to the heights of misplaced ecstasy with startling shrieks of joy. He wears his yellow-stockings get-up (costumes by Linda C. Davisson), a shiny gold gym suit with a corset-laced front, under a long black coat, like some kind of flasher dandy.


For all its assured strides, Jones' production does miss some steps. The play's melancholy undercurrent emerges most strongly from Feste and Toby, the show's preeminent clowns, rather than from its two mourners, Moreland's Olivia and Bridget Flanery's Viola. You'd never know from their breezy performances that both recently lost loved ones to untimely deaths (we glimpse a photo of Olivia's late brother in military blues). Both fare better as lovers, banking their passion for unattainable objects with convincing ardor.


Kila Kitu makes an appealingly sassy maid Maria, and Bryan Cogman plays Aguecheek as a cheerful walking target in golf casuals. In two of the play's more thankless small roles, Leon Morenzie gives the pirate Antonio a salty West Indian flavor, while Glenn Peters' tow-headed Sebastian is an appropriate twin for Flanery's light-toned Viola. Messaline, the town they hail from, must be somewhere in the Corn Belt.


Young Midwesterners blowing into a town full of transient hustlers, self-styled artists and matter-of-fact affluence? It's so L.A., dude.


"Twelfth Night," Shakespeare Festival LA at Pershing Square, Downtown L.A. (closed). Reopens July 22 at South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Ends Aug. 1. Free but reservations required. (213) 975-9891. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.