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Guys and Dolls 

A revelatory all-male Twelfth Night from London

Thursday, Oct 30 2003
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New York’s Variety critic stood outside the foyer of UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse last Wednesday as the curtain was about to go up on Twelfth Night. (UCLA Live! is presenting the much-heralded production of the Shakespeare comedy put on by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from London.) Dabbling sniffles from a travel cold with a “kerchief,” he said he was out here anyway, adding, with muted annoyance, that the production would not be coming to New York in its five-city North American tour. (The company goes straight from UCLA to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, then on to Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor and Chicago.)

That UCLA Live!’s director, David Sefton, nabbed it to launch the tour gives credit to his oft-stated aim of making his performing-arts program a Left Coast equivalent, if not rival, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At this point, UCLA Live! has the only international theater festival west of the Rockies — which is nice for Sefton but a terrible reflection of American insularity from the world of arts on this side of the nation.

So far, this year’s festival is very, very British. Twelfth Night is the centerpiece of a season that opened with London performance artist Marisa Carnesky’s stripping bare for Jewess Tattooess, about the paradoxes and paradigms of a nice Jewish girl violating the tenets of her faith by being tattooed. The festival has also included Improbable Theatre’s just-closed The Hanging Man: Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch’s comic yet grandiloquent and beautifully staged allegory about death, told through the story of architect Edward Braff (Richard Katz), whose attempt to hang himself while building a cathedral is foiled by the grim reaper — a female dwarf (Lisa Hammond). This leaves the poor fellow plenty of time to mull it all over while hanging nonchalantly on the end of a rope.

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Scottish performer Oscar McLennan’s spittle-laced monologue, The Quiet Bastard: Director’s Cut, about an alternative filmmaker in a world where you can only hear “the big dogs barking,” also just closed. Part Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, part Beckett, the piece was hard to take with all its grunge and bile — like listening to an embittered, mad uncle doing arty standup. Anne Seagrave’s accompanying audio of reverbed phrases from the piece and her video-clip close-ups of sweaty lips rimmed in 10 o’clock shadow were similarly uninviting. Yet its greater purpose and pleasure lay in that very grime, in the raw beauty of the language and its Celtic lilt, and in the larger truths lurking behind the petulance that rendered the piece so disquieting and fascinating at the same time.

Still to come, in time for the holidays, is Berlin’s Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxeemberg-Platz performing Dostoyevsky’s romp The Insulted and Injured, adapted and directed by Frank Castorf. In the spring arrives another theater/film work: üBUNG from Belgium, a piece by writer-director Josse De Pauw that was supposed to open the festival last month.

 

There’s a misapprehension that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the fulfillment of Sam Wanamaker’s lifelong dream and located on the site of the original, is dedicated to replicating the Bard’s oeuvre as it would have been staged 400 years ago. “Museum” is a description of Wanamaker’s theater that makes artistic director Mark Rylance shudder. That said, Tim Carroll’s all-male staging of Twelfth Night, accompanied by over-the-stage musicians playing period instruments, is about as close to a Xerox replica of Elizabethan acting style, music and costume as anybody is likely to find.

The company has replicated the set used in its 2002 Middle Temple Hall production (the play premiered precisely 400 years earlier in that very London gallery for law students) and plunked it onto the Freud Playhouse stage, around which the audience sits in bleachers on three sides. There are candelabra and some skeletal foliage hanging around, but the most conspicuous aspect of the set is one high ornate wall containing two arched doors, almost side by side. The placement of those doors sums up this production’s core idea — parallel dualities that, if you squint your eyes, blend into each other: male and female, reality and delusion, history and modernity, comedy and melancholy.

Carroll’s staging is a revelation, an assemblage of paradoxes that all fold into each other, as in no Twelfth Night seen in the last 50 years. Carroll unrolls the play with a slow reveal, like a massive bolt of carpet — and he’s in no hurry to do so. Aside from Rylance’s Olivia and Jenny Tiramani’s lacy embroidered costumes (in prevailing hues of maroon and black, earth and green), the production’s most striking aspect is, paradoxically, its leisurely pace, the time taken for every syllable and every bawdy gesture to land. This, along with Keith McGowan’s musical direction of the songs and madrigals, lends a kind of melancholy underlying the roundelay of unrequited loves that are marbled with the comedy of mistaken identities and ribald pranks. The chaos rendered by the presence of almost-

identical twins, brother and sister (Rhys Meredith and Michael Brown), one of whom is going around dressed as a boy while each is unaware that the other is even alive, is usually the stuff of hijinks, with a slight underpinning of sadness that comes with human folly — of presuming to know what’s really going on when we really know nothing at all. Here, that melancholy underpinning becomes the overpinning; in an era as confused and duplicitous and self-destructive as ours, there’s an earthquake-in-waiting because of our hubris and arrogance, which is still very funny and, at the same time, no laughing matter.

Then there’s the acting, almost arch in its presentational style, unapologetic of the cadences’ formality; yet through the stylization, it becomes as intimate and clear and human as a breakfast chat across a kitchen table. The male Rylance plays Lady Olivia (smitten with her “boy” servant, who is actually female yet played by a man — go ahead, wrap your head around that one) something like a Kabuki puppet in black frills (she’s in mourning) and painted whiteface. She sidles around the stage as if being on wheels rather than feet; if you removed her batteries, she would collapse on the stage in a heap. If you overcharged her, she might just explode, splattering the walls with her repressed longings for her servant. But as is, corseted in, she’s a cartoon embodiment of aristocratic propriety — a departure from most Olivias, who turn into debauched and humiliated man-eaters. Rylance’s Olivia bears a striking resemblance to young Queen Elizabeth I as she’s represented in paintings, though with diminutive gestures, and speaks with hitches and halts that betray her ongoing distraction and bewilderment.

In a cast that’s the epitome of unity and craft, Timothy Walker’s fey, prancing Malvolio emerges as more than just a deluded stooge. When reading the counterfeited letter that leads him to wrongly believe that his mistress lusts for him, he jigs across the long stage, snorting with glee at the prospect of finally having position in the court. In the heart-wrenching moment he realizes the ruse, he falls to his knees in a jaw-dropped, silent caterwaul as blissful delusion crumbles around him, revealing the torturous reality

of his station.

And so it goes: example after example of those

two doors moving ever closer until they become one, while breathing life into the phrase “so old, it looks like new.”

 

All remaining performances of Twelfth Night are available on limited status only. For further information, call (310) 825-2101 or go to www.uclalive.org.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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