Intimate Theatre

at the Swedish American Museum Center

Next to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night is probably the Shakespeare comedy most often essayed by young theater practitioners harboring fond memories of their workshop training. In his notes, director Dan Wirth claims other reasons for choosing Twelfth Night; he cites thematic parallels between Shakespeare’s world and ours, and he makes some psychological ruminations about the duality of human nature and how we seek to repress those parts of ourselves we most fear. Whether one accepts these lofty rationales or not, there is no denying that this play was a good choice for the Intimate Theatre company.

This production shifts the play’s locale to a California Gold Rush encampment in 1851, the height of the boom. While the youth and vigor of the company members (the oldest can’t be much more than 30) rendered their premiere production last year, Miss Julie, little more than a singularly grueling acting-class exercise, these qualities work perfectly in the rough-and-ready universe of a frontier settlement.

The symptoms of gold fever are certainly present in Shakespeare’s tale, chiefly in the narrative line involving the courtship of a wealthy heiress, Olivia (in this production the sister of a recently deceased magistrate), by three suitors: Orsino, the new town judge; Andrew Aguecheek, a greenhorn come west to seek his fortune and a conceited self-promoter; and Malvolio, an ambitious legal clerk whose professed asceticism hides an avarice and egotism as great as his rivals’. All three appear more interested in themselves than in the lady they claim to adore (though the lady seems likewise self-absorbed).

Another plot line, lifted directly from old Roman comedy, involves Sebastian and Viola, twins separated by a shipwreck. Sebastian is rescued by a pirate–in this production, a female brigand named Antonia. Viola disguises herself as a boy (“Cesario”) and eventually finds herself in the employ of Orsino, with the mission of carrying his proposals to Olivia. In the course of this cross-gender counterfeiting, Viola discovers to her dismay that she has fallen in love with her employer; likewise, Orsino is disturbed by his attraction to his new office boy. Olivia, entranced by Cesario’s uncanny insight into female nature, spurns Orsino’s attentions in favor of his servant. This tangle is further aggravated by the antics of Toby Belch, Olivia’s moonshine-swilling uncle; Maria, her loyal maid and confidante; Fabian, a con artist; and Feste, a traveling medicine-show entertainer–all of whom delight in making mischief, especially at the expense of Malvolio.

As cluttered and confusing as all this may get at times, Shakespeare’s characters remain fresh and familiar: Who doesn’t know somebody like Orsino and Olivia, more enamored of the idea of being in love than they could ever be of another person? How many of our contemporaries, facing mid-life crisis, drink and carouse like Belch in a desperate denial of incipient age? How many, like Aguecheek, exaggerate their accomplishments in order to elevate themselves above the ordinary? (Hint: look in the personal ads.) And how many, like Malvolio, take pride in their very humility and selflessness? The eventual acceptance by all these people of the side of themselves they’ve been fighting–Malvolio learns to appreciate his greedy side, Olivia learns being in love is actually more fun than being in love with the idea–reflects the putting to right of a disorderly universe. Even Belch finally opts to settle down and marry the practical Maria.

The entire cast of Intimate’s production displays an ingenuous enthusiasm, speaking their Elizabethan euphemisms naturally and energetically (with the exception of Geoffrey MacKinnon as Orsino, who sometimes seems more concerned with grooving to the music of his words than in conveying their content). Ruth Jacobson plays Viola with a charming Yankee brashness and looks right at home in male attire. Truda Stockenstrom as Olivia reveals a fine flair for comedy–watch the scene where the six-foot-tall Stockenstrom attempts to corner the much-shorter Jacobson. Letitia Hicks makes a rakish gun-toting desperado as Antonia, and Judy Lejeck gives the sharp-witted Maria a kvetchy spriteliness. Paul Friedman’s grizzled and robust Toby Belch contrasts nicely with Henry Michael Odum’s puppylike Aguecheek. Wirth, who plays Feste, seems to have been distracted by his other duties, but he speaks his lines with nimbleness and grace, singing several–one or two too many–songs in a voice surprisingly higher and more delicate than his speaking voice. Nicholas Wodtke does a nice hoodlum turn as the hard-boiled Fabian, and Gregory Green is all sympathetic bewilderment as the soft-boiled Sebastian. But Michele Filpi steals the show as Malvolio, delivering a chewy and concentrated performance with every line and movement. Even the simple act of removing a too-tight ring from his finger becomes a study in subtextual subtlety–and the sight of sober Malvolio decked out with Byronesque foppishness in ribbons, flowers, and a smile only a dentist could love is alone worth the price of admission.

This museum basement doesn’t allow much in the way of scenery–though the choreography makes clever use of the two sight-blocking posts at the corners of the stage area–so the players make do, as Shakespeare did, with a chair or two, some carefully chosen props (like Malvolio’s antique pince-nez), and Tammy Berlin’s well-coordinated costumes. Credit is also due to Julie Crossen, whose plaintive violin strains of “My Darling Clementine,” the anthem of the Gold Rush, sets the time, place, and mood to perfection.

Last year when I reviewed Intimate Theatre’s productions of Miss Julie and The Stranger, I called the two productions “an auspicious beginning.” Twelfth Night confirms it: Intimate Theatre is a company with big plans and the ability to carry them out–and with a little practice, ensure a secure and successful future.