THEATER REVIEW : 'Twelfth Night' Through the Looking Glass

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Shakespearean directors, "Twelfth Night" is one big sandbox play--go in your corner and mold it into any shape or size you wish. That, along with its obvious attraction as one of Shakespeare's finer marriages of tomfoolery and romance, is a major reason why "Twelfth Night" pops up so often.

Especially this summer, where it's popping up all over: two weeks ago at Shakespeare Festival/LA's Japanese Gardens space, this week at San Diego's Old Globe, and last week at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre care of Shakespeare Orange County. Under Carl Reggiardo's direction, Shakespeare O.C.'s production is the only indoor staging of the three, but it feels expansive enough in the large Waltmar space.

Reggiardo, finding this a big enough sandbox to play in, has molded his very own "Twelfth Night," happily stealing from Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books. The idea is that the land of Ilyria, on which Viola (Kamella Tate) is shipwrecked in "Twelfth Night," is like the Looking Glass world into which Alice drops in the Carroll books. Maybe, it's suggested deep between the lines, the Victorian Carroll happily stole his inspiration from Elizabethan Shakespeare. Both works are about the perils felt by young women in a strange land filled with goofy characters who talk artful nonsense.

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But directors' concepts can be curious, to use Alice's favorite word; the more they take hold, the more one can begin to doubt the connection. Most of the characters here are visually tied to a Looking Glass character. Lovelorn Olivia (Pauline Maranian), the countess who swoons for male servant Cesario (who is actually Viola in disguise), wears a headdress reminiscent of Carroll's the Duchess. The pompous, self-loving Malvolio (Wayne Alexander) wears a wig shaped like rabbit's ears--the White Rabbit. Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Bryan Cartmell) has some of Humpty Dumpty's portliness, and likes to sit on a wall. Court jester Feste (Michael Nehring) resembles, first, the Mad Hatter, then the Caterpillar as he curls up in a corner smoking a pipe.

The tie-in begins to fray, though, with the costumes themselves (expertly crafted by Cathy Crane-McCoy). While Carroll was satirizing the British royal state and the Victorian one in particular, the costumes and Suzie Goff's set (though cleverly sprinkled with hearts and artificial facades) fix things in the Mediterranean Renaissance, where mercurial passions can create potentially strange bedfellows.

In fact, this "Alice" connection is only skin deep. It isn't Viola who thinks the Ilyrians are mad, but her long-lost twin brother, Sebastian (Michael Strickland, who doesn't effectively twin with Tate). Belch is no hapless Humpty Dumpty, but a wily plotter of mischief. Malvolio is never late for a very important date, but just a fool-in-the-making.

Put this business aside, though, and you have a very nicely read "Twelfth Night" which tends to balance the play's loving and clowning better than many other versions. There could be far more sparks between Viola and Olivia, though Tate gets funnier as her Viola realizes the trap she's set for herself. Reggiardo's Duke and Alexander's Malvolio are cleverly mirrored here, more in love with the idea of being desired than with the one (Olivia) they each believe is desiring them.

Nothing can be done to shorten the painfully drawn-out, mischievous torture of Malvolio, but the plotters are a funny bunch: Cartmell's Belch suggests a legitimate power-seeker who took the wrong career track and John Shouse's Sir Andrew is modestly understated, while Nehring milks every moment of Feste's punning and singing.

Concepts, like sandbox castles, have a way of eroding. Long after the "Alice" echoes have faded, it's the confidence of Reggiardo's cast steering through "Twelfth Night's" many moods that remains.

* "Twelfth Night," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 6. $16 to $23. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Carl Reggiardo: Orsino Kamella Tate: Viola Pauline Maranian: Olivia Daniel Bryan Cartmell: Sir Toby Belch John Shouse: Sir Andrew Aguecheek Wayne Alexander: Malvolio Michael Nehring: Feste Kei Rowan-Young: Maria Tamiko Washington: Antonia

A Shakespeare Orange County production of Shakespeare's comedy. Directed by Carl Reggiardo. Set: Suzie Goff. Lights: David Palmer. Costumes: Cathy Crane-McCoy. Sound: Craig Brown. Music: Chuck Estes.

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