Even if you think you’ve seen enough Twelfth Nights to last you a lifetime, leave it to A Noise Within to put a fresh new spin on Shakespeare’s classic tale of gender-switching and mistaken identity. As for those seeing their very first Twelfth Night, ANW’s Caribbean-set retelling proves as entertaining an introduction to it as any lover of the Bard could desire.

Twelfth Night’s oh-so-Shakespearean plot features a set of fraternal twins, male and female, who would seem at first to look and sound nothing at all alike. Still, all the female of the matched set has to do is put on men’s clothing (coincidentally the very same outfit worn by her long lost brother), stick on a mustache (identical to her brother’s), don a short blond wig (in the same style as twin bro’s), and she gets taken as her male sibling by everyone she meets. Then again, suspension of disbelief is de regueur in the Shakespeare oeuvre, if you’ll pardon my French.

Twelfth Night’s cast of young lovers includes Viola (Angela Gulner), who disguises herself as Cesario to get work as a page to Duke Orsino (Robertson Dean), who is in love with Olivia (Abby Craden). Viola’s twin Sebastian (Max Rosenak), long separated from his sister following a shipwreck, is accompanied by his loyal hanger-on Antonio (Steve Weingartner.

Comic relief is provided by Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (Apollo Dukakis), her servant Maria (Deborah Strang), and Sir Toby’s friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jeremy Rabb), also interested in Olivia. There’s also an oddball gentleman named Malvolio (Geoff Elliott), who inspires laughs aplenty when tricked into wearing yellow stockings and purple cross-garters by the aforementioned trio.

Completing the cast are Orsinos’ fool Feste (Anthony Mark Barrow), a gentleman named Fabian (Max Lawrence), a captain and a priest (Mitchell Edmonds in both roles), and other assorted characters: Allison Elliott as Curio, Jill Hill as Valentine, and Patrick Connolly, Alex Galicia, Diana Gonzalez-Morett, Heather Roberts, and Simmin Yu in various cameos.

Shakespeare stagings that actually take place in Elizabethan times have lately become as rare as steak tartare, and A Noise Within’s Twelfth Night is no exception. Then again, for a play which opens with a shipwreck, what more appropriate setting could there be than a Caribbean island, and why not early ‘50s Cuba, before Castro and his revolution erased all that decadent glamour and glitz from the isle?

Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and her design team go all the way in recreating that sizzling Batista-era ambiente. Scenic designer Kurt Boetcher has designed a gorgeous minimalist set with palms trees and cabana chaises longues in fire engine reds and Caribbean greens, color motifs carried through in Angela Balogh Calin’s gorgeous 1950s costumes, particularly Craden’s Ava Gardneresque outfits, including a red-and-white polka-dot two-piece swimsuit which turns into a stunning cocktail number when a full skirt and petticoats are added. Ken Booth’s lighting design ups the Technicolor brilliance, with Doug Newell and Zipline Sound incorporating plenty of salsa and merengue in their sound design. Monica Lisa Sabedra’s wig, hair, and makeup design complete the all-around sensational design package.

Director Elliott-Rodriguez opens the proceedings with a spectacularly choreographed shipwreck-and-swordplay overture, featuring Ken Merckx’s thrilling fight choreography. And that’s just for starters.

Performances are uniformly at A Noise Within standards, which means of course that they are quite marvelous indeed.

It’s a joy to see so many ANW Resident Artists in a single production, a particularly savvy casting decision given that Twelfth Night debuts A Noise Within’s exciting new Pasadena digs. This may well be the first time that audiences will get to see ANW Founder/Artistic Co-Director Elliott along with Craden, Dean, Dukakis, Edmonds, Hill, Strang, and Weingarten all onstage in the same production. (About the only Resident Artists who seem missing are William Dennis Hunt and Stephen Rockwell, busy rehearsing the upcoming Desire Under The Elms.) Needless to say, it’s a joy to see all these gifted thespians at one time, with particular kudos due Dean, Elliott, and Strang, more often in dramatic than comedic mode (as in Arthur Miller’s The Price) but here earning considerable laughs with three delicious comic turns. (Elliott in yellow stockings and purple cross-garters is almost worth the price of admission.) As for glamour and sex-appeal, Craden has probably never been more glamorous and sexy—or terrific. The productions’ newcomers, lookalikes Gulner and Rosenak along with Barrow and Lawrence all make memorable ANW debuts.

A word should be said about the new Pasadena performance space. Not only are surrounding amenities exactly what any theatergoer could wish for (ample free parking and plenty of eateries for pre-or-post show coffee, cocktails, or dining), the theater itself is a spectacular new addition to our Los Angeles stage scene. The stage remains thrust-style, as ANW actors and audiences are accustomed to, but seating and sightlines are much improved. Lighting designers in particular will be overjoyed by the new space’s state of the art facilities. Still, if there is a fly in the ointment, it is an acoustical one. Acoustics, at least at this time, are not what they should be, and if there is one thing audiences should be guaranteed, it is hearing crystal clear voices and dialog. Though some may be the fault of Twelfth Night’s Elizabethan English, audience members may find themselves occasionally straining to pick up dialog, particularly when actors’ backs are turned.

Other than the above complaint, the move to Pasadena is likely to be celebrated by everyone but Glendale residents living a hop, skip, and jump from ANW’s previous longtime headquarters, and even they may quickly become converts.

Kellsy MacKilligan is costume shop coordinator, Daniel Bergher lighting intern, Angela Fong stage manager, Alexandra Dunn props master, Francesca Marciano assistant scenic designer/contruction, Michael Leon costume/hair assistant, Henry Echeverria production manager/technical director, and Ronnie J. Clark master electrician.

Over the past several decades, there’s been no L.A.-area theater quite like A Noise Within, providing Angelinos with some of the best Shakespeare, Moliere, Racine, Ibsen, and Chekhov alongside more contemporary works by Miller, Williams, Ionesco, Odets, and Anouilh (to name just ten of the many playwrights whose work has been revived to perfection by ANW). Now, with its Inaugural Pasadena Season, A Noise Within seems poised to offer up decades more of great theater. If Twelfth Night is any indication, Southern Californians are in for treat after treat.

A Noise Within,  3352 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
November 5, 2011
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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