.Paul Mullins’ Rendition of ‘Twelfth Night’ is a Riot

Santa Cruz Shakespeare 2022’s second show is a gender-bending success

After three years of restraint, it was a pleasure to laugh myself silly at the endless delights of Twelfth Night, the second of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2022 offerings.

“If music be the food of love, play on!” says Orsino, the Duke of a mythic island called Illyria. Some backstory: Orsino (M.L. Roberts ) is mad for the Countess Olivia (Jennie Greenberry), who has vowed to shun suitors during a long period of mourning for her dead brother. Enter a young woman, Viola (Safiya Harris), shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria who thinks her twin brother Sebastian has drowned in the storm. Disguised as a boy, Viola finds employment with Orsino, who presses her into service to woo Countess Olivia on his behalf. Great, except Viola (dressed as a young man called Cesario) has already fallen in love with Orsino herself. When she meets the Countess and extols the virtues of Orsino, the Countess promptly falls in love with him/her.

Echoing this gender-bending love triangle is a partying trio—the perennially drunk and aptly named Sir Toby Belch (Mike Ryan having more fun than is legal), his clueless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (played by our future Artistic Director Charles Pasternak, who stole this show over and over), and their bawdy conspirator Maria (Patty Gallagher, about whom I’ve written, and will continue to write—over-the-top praise). These three—Belch (the Countess’ ribald uncle), Maria (her maid) and Aguecheek (the witless, aristocratic sidekick of Belch)— cavort, prance, drink, dance, sing and plot to humiliate the Countess’ vain and puritanical servant Malvolio (played to the hilt by the astonishing Lindsay Paige White). Think of it as three little worlds of romance, hilarious camaraderie and intensely coiled mischief, all ingeniously knit together by the brilliant Cedric Lamar as Orsino’s cagey fool, Feste (okay, he really DID steal the show).

If you think this is convoluted, it is. But it’s not confusing, and that is thanks to director Paul Mullins and his cast, as talented a group of professionals as ever gathered at the Audrey Stanley Grove. In each bit of juicy and cross-gendered repartée, every single person on that stage stole the show. More than once!

Let me also praise costumer B. Modern, whose uncanny sense of what each character requires, and what each mood demands, filled this production with limitless visual magic. The opening, in which all actors are dressed in shades of black, raising black umbrellas at the same exact moment, is definitive stagecraft. Brava B. Modern, never better, endlessly inspired. And bravo to actor Ward Duffy (see The Formula), who stepped into a small but crucial part literally hours before last weekend’s matinee. He made it work, even clutching a script, which he managed to make look like it was part of the staging. The show must go on, and Duffy was a genuine trooper.

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There’s so much to love in this brisk comedy—considered Shakespeare’s comedic best—that the audience can barely breathe. Mullins not only understands how to ignite the full flavor of some of Shakespeare’s most wicked puns and risqué metaphors, he has also kindled genuine understanding in his actors (aided by barely visible amplifying head pieces). As a result, we can hear and understand every word. There is no yelling. No word is dropped. The audience is enfolded in each one of the play’s outrageous schemes to outwit adversaries and win affections.

The flames of slapstick are fanned by the dazzling Lamar as the fool Feste, whose vocal impersonations and musical abilities power much of the mood and mayhem of Twelfth Night. Music punctuates many scenes and scene changes in this production, from blues to Jerome Kern—kudos to music master Rody Ortega.

It’s such a guilty pleasure watching this many grown men and women having this much fun dressing up and behaving like silly children—think Monty Python, or SNL. Especially Charles Pasternak as the dapper, dumb-as-a-post Sir Aguecheek, determined to learn (if not understand) a few words of French, and duel with a much-better-trained opponent. Not only was the scene in which the acrobatic Pasternak leaps across pianos, romps up stairways, and pirouettes with abandon riotous, it was made even richer by the actor obviously having so much fun with his perfectly timed frolic. About the magnificent White as Malvolio I will say little. I don’t want to spoil your fun.

A full-on comedic romp, Twelfth Night will make you laugh more than you have since The Formula. Don’t you dare miss it!

‘Twelfth Night,’ directed by Paul Mullins, runs through Aug. 28 at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park. santacruzshakespeare.org.

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