There are lots of excellent reasons to head for Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda, where the California Shakespeare Festival is now in midseason: The last two times I've gone, the evenings have actually been balmy. A pleasant, meandering walk through the eucalyptus grove is guaranteed to repair nerves frazzled by traffic, and the theater itself is situated so that the background hills are soothingly visible as long as daylight lasts. Later, if you're lucky, the sky fills with stars that are virtually invisible in the city. All this is swell unless your primary interest is in the actual play the CSF is staging, Twelfth Night this time around.
This is the directorial debut of actor Joe Vincent, the CSF's new artistic director, and it's a big disappointment. Twelfth Night is arguably Shakespeare's most popular comedy. It's certainly one of his best-made, and seems foolproof. But even Shakespeare isn't strong enough to overcome Vincent's sluggish and erratic staging, which strangles the comedy and virtually eliminates the romance. To put it bluntly, this Twelfth Night is a bore.
The play has been produced so often, it may have seemed that there was little need to give more than cursory exploration of its themes of true love, identity, and so on. Vincent has chosen to rely on visuals to get them across. His research has revealed the fictional setting of Illyria to be the Dalmatian coast of the former Yugoslavia, which was under Venetian rule during the Renaissance. Hence the truly lovely set by Eric Sinkkonen, the richly detailed costumes by Betty Poindexter, and lighting by David K.H. Elliott, all of which emphasize the vibrant reds, blues, and pinkish earth tones of Renaissance Venice.
The show begins auspiciously, with an elegantly mounted dumb show representing the traditional Venetian midwinter revel known as the Feast of Fools, in which roles are reversed, and servants change places with their masters.
The familiar story then unfolds as Duke Orsino (Bruce Ladd) takes to his balcony to bemoan his unrequited love for the lady Olivia (Domenique Lozano), who has refused to emerge from mourning her dead brother. Ladd's Orsino is notable solely for his quirky appearance: The combination of a pageboy wig and a black eye-patch makes him look more like Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken than a roguish romantic.
Viola (Terri McMahon) enters soon after, direct from a harrowing shipwreck she barely survived and which she believes has drowned her twin brother, Sebastian. You'd never know it from her appearance, though: She's resplendent in a pink and gold gown and seems rested and relaxed. When she romps off with the kindly sea captain who rescued her (Gary S. Martinez), having resolved to serve Orsino disguised as a eunuch, it's as though she's bound for a madcap adventure that has nothing whatever to do with survival or grief. It's unnerving. Worse, it forces all subsequent action to skitter on the surface of supposed comedy, undermining its poignancy and obliterating the love stories that Shakespeare develops so carefully.
In her new identity as the servant Cesario, Viola is duly taken on by Orsino and dispatched to Olivia's at once with yet another romantic entreaty. Olivia (given a disquietingly matronish characterization by Lozano) refuses to entertain the Count's overtures, but falls, unaccountably, for his messenger. Viola makes a nominal effort to discourage Olivia's ardor, but her casual passivity in allowing Olivia to kiss her, for instance, speaks far more loudly than her words. When Viola's brother, Sebastian (Tim Redmond), shows up having also survived the shipwreck, and stumbles onto the scene, mistaken identity allows romance to flower.
Viola, meanwhile, confides in a soliloquy that she has fallen in love with Orsino. It's all a jolly mess until the resolution at the end. It's not supposed to be serious, but it is supposed to be lusty, or at least romantic. The problem with the usually reliable CSF company is that there isn't the tiniest bit of chemistry or sexual tension among any of these players.
McMahon makes a pleasing Viola, although, to be blunt yet again, she seems a bit old for the role; her efforts to play Viola's youth make her performance strained and painfully perky. It's also hard to fathom what she sees in Ladd's resolutely wooden Orsino.
The only available erotic spark can be found, oddly enough, in Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Tom Ramirez), and his wooing of Maria (Wilma Bonet), her maid. Having disturbed the sleeping household with boozy caterwauling, Toby charms Maria into joining in. That she does so fills him with a joy that drains him of physical strength. Falling to his knees, he embraces her ample figure and buries his face in her skirt. She, in turn, radiates affection and returns his embrace. It is the one moment of authentic romance in the entire evening.
Shakespeare's subplot, a goofy contrivance in which the loutish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Robert Shampian) enlists Sir Toby's help to win Olivia as his (wealthy) bride, falls short for the most part. Offering little contrast to the main event, it overreaches itself time and time again, and is only sporadically funny. The plot to convince the pompous servant Malvolio (J. Michael Flynn) that Olivia is in love with him is strained and forced.
The play works best when it's at its quietest. Shakespeare has filled it with lovely ballads (such as "Come Away, Death") for which composer Karl Mansfield has provided soft acoustic accompaniment. (Musicians are Victor Avdienko, Greg Barnett, Kerri Dillman, and Fritz Hansen.) Feste (Bob Greene), Olivia's clown, sings them in a pleasing tenor voice. With his Renaissance jester's outfit, and a misshapen leg that from time to time required the assistance of a crutch (although now and then he was able to walk without even a limp), he pulls the show out of its pedestrian doldrums and gives it a plaintively romantic tone. Which works wonderfully well against the star-filled sky.
Twelfth Night runs through Sept. 7.