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Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo

Malvolio Unplugged: 'I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-gartered.'

Shadow Play

There's darkness beneath the surface of 'Twelfth Night' in P.J. Paparelli's production of this much-loved comedy

By Rob Pratt

Disturbing imagery, a stark color palette and a Gothic sensibility. These are just some of the design details that Shakespeare Santa Cruz newcomer P.J. Paparelli uses to hint at dark shadows beneath Twelfth Night's lighthearted madness. And instead of opening with the love-sick duke, Paparelli's Twelfth Night starts with Feste the fool (Michael Milligan) conjuring a forcible gale, while a rag-doll-clutching Viola (Julia Coffey) lies tossing at center stage, as if having an unsettling dream. The storm passes, then Duke Orsino enters, speaking of love. The effect is subtle, suggesting that love is a fleeting illusion, while managing to retain the carefree delights of this much-loved comedy of mistaken identity.

Viola has landed in Illyria after a shipwreck separated her from her twin brother, Sebastian (Brian Hostenske). In a way, all of Illyria is a shipwreck, a point visually realized in Scott Bradley's ingenious, asymmetric set, which beaches an entire weathered-gray vessel in the Glen.

But though Illyria is on the rocks, the cast is ship-shape. Returning after a smoldering debut as Kate in last year's The Taming of the Shrew, Blaire Chandler plays a commanding Olivia, the object of Orsino's romantic entreaties. Leith Burke as Orsino likewise exudes power and control, and while Shakespeare's text provides few clues as to what the witty and self-possessed Viola would see in the emotionally crippled duke, Burke makes Viola's infatuation believable, thanks in part to his appealing statuesqueness.

Paparelli's sharp eye for the dark side of Twelfth Night extends to the drunken revelers in Olivia's house. Cameron Folmar adds a touch of melancholy to Olivia's would-be-suitor, the inane fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek, thereby making him ridiculous and endearing. Tommy Gomez's Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's hanger-on relative, schemes both for sport and, perhaps, to conceal his own useless existence.

Though consumed with ale and cakes, this pair, along with Olivia's servants, are primarily concerned with the undoing of Malvolio, Olivia's uptight and moralistic steward. James Winker, who played Malvolio in SSC's 1996 production of Twelfth Night, reprises the role to show-stopping effect. Dressed in undertaker black, Winker's Malvolio, with a slight change of setting, would be ready to prosecute Salem's witches.

A decade ago, when SSC presented Twelfth Night to a nation led by President Bill Clinton, Shakespeare's send-up of Puritan morality played as a tartly worded caricature meant strictly for laughs. In a nation now in the thrall of religious conservatism, those laughs come with a political charge.

Ultimately, it's ambivalence in Paparelli's Twelfth Night that makes the production haunting. Audiences familiar with Shakespeare Santa Cruz expect excellence, and this new vision of Twelfth Night delivers. What makes the production stand out is the unexpected--the dark side of mirth, the deep shadows thrown into stark contrast amid the play's lighthearted surface.

Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night,' Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, Theater Arts Center, UC-Santa Cruz, through Aug. 28. Tickets: $10$40. Visit www.shakes pearesantacruz.com or call 831.459.2159.

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From the July 27-August 3, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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