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Valley Weekend : THEATER REVIEW : Actors Do Justice to the Best of Bard’s Comedies : The classically trained cast deftly meets demands of the many moods and complexities of ‘Twelfth Night.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there’s a more culturally diverse spot in the whole Valley right now than the Sports Center in Studio City, we’d like to know about it. Downstairs, it seems like everyone within 20 miles has converged to go bowling, and, per usual, everyone in The Industry is checking out each other at Jerry’s Deli. A floor directly above, Theatre East is putting on an original one-act series. The grisly-funny “Spirits of the Season” is down the hall.

And right above the pool room, Excalibur Theatre Company is offering Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the Lionstar Theatre. It’s an offering, moreover, that is one of the purest, most graceful theatrical gestures in some time--a superb, next-to-no-budget staging and a prime example of unalloyed American Shakespeare.

Forget the rudimentary set by cast member Carl J. Pfeifer’s or any other production values--beyond Jude Lucas’ luscious, circa 15th-Century costumes and some nice mood touches, care of sound designer Wendy Breuder. The real production values here are the actors, who are by and large so at ease with Shakespeare that, unlike untrained Bard recruits, the individual readings are natural, emotional and, ultimately, powerful. If a company doesn’t have much money to throw around, this is the way to do Shakespeare’s most brilliant comedy.

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To be sure, when many of Excalibur’s actors aren’t working in Studio City (which is criminally infrequent), they’re doing Shakespeare elsewhere--Nevada, up the coast, wherever. Like the actors at Glendale’s A Noise Within, they’re classically trained Shakespeareans at a level that’s pretty scarce in L.A. Training makes for suppleness, and suppleness is what’s demanded of the many moods and complexities of “Twelfth Night.”

On the surface, it’s a silly little sex comedy, one of Shakespeare’s several mistaken-identity comedies, involving male-female twins in exile in a distant land. But as shipwrecked Viola (Joanne McGee), disguising herself as a spunky boy servant named Cesario on the island of Ilyria, falls for the island’s Duke Orsino (Pfeifer), so the countess Olivia (Jane Longenecker) falls for Cesario.

It’s the formula for one of theater’s sweetest, most comic love triangles, and the three actors play every note of longing, ironic confusion and plain lust with commanding skill. McGee is a special find: keen to the language, physically a chameleon and, that rare thing, a romantic comedian. Pfeifer’s stentorian voice could fill a room 10 times this large, and Longenecker is like a Vermeer lady come to life.

Doubling the comic energy, Shakespeare layers over his main plot with what first appears to be a slight subplot about Olivia’s dour steward, Malvolio (Frank Novak), versus pranksters Sir Toby Belch (John Serembe), hawk-nosed Fabian (James Schendel) foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Rajan Dosaj), the fool Feste (Jeffery Paul Whitman) and Olivia’s feisty servant Maria (Patty Marina).

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Every “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen (including a 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company staging in Stratford) has made this Malvolio business feel like filler at worst, a sideshow at best. Until this one. Under Dosaj’s smart direction, even previously ignored characters such as Maria become impassioned, flesh-and-blood people. Marina is quite a sight, while Whitman packs lots of smarts into his fool, and an elaborate “spy” scene with Novak, Serembe, Dosaj and Schendel reaches giddy heights of clowning.

In the end, even this “sideshow” is revealed to be a disguised morality play, though Novak doesn’t quite grab our sympathies as he should here. Otherwise, this is a “Twelfth Night” that delivers the whole, wonderful package--for once.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

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* WHAT: “Twelfth Night.”

* WHERE: Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 17.

* HOW MUCH: $8-$12.

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* FYI: (818) 761-0312.


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