Will trade thought for food

"What You Will" -- and won't -- in TheatreWorks' Twelfth Night
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"If music be the food of love, let's party" goes the catchphrase for TheatreWorks' holiday production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will. As this jiggering with Orsino's famous opening line suggests, artistic director Robert Kelley takes the Bard's invitation to do "what you will" as a license to rock, with a San Francisco Summer of Love theme meant to warm the cockles on a winter's eve. It's a theme the show's producers run with at full tilt. But then, summers in this city can be pretty chilly too.

Things start boldly enough, at least visually. Scenic designer Andrea Bechert's canny quoting of '60s surrealism — namely, a studied blend of Yellow Submarine–like fantasia and Peter Max–style Haight-Ashbury poster art — ensures it's an eminently psychedelic set of TV game show proportions that greets visitors to Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre. The costumes (lovingly created by Allison Connor) meanwhile reference equally emblematic threads. Hence, the luridly colorful, invariably bell-bottomed cast strike instantly recognizable rock star poses.

Predictable bursts of canned period rock come augmented with some winsome live music, courtesy of composer Paul Gordon (writer-composer of TheatreWorks' recent world-premiere musical, Emma) and performed by a trio of actors. They are led by the tuneful and sharp (dramatically speaking) Patrick Alparone as Feste the clown, with Michael Ching and Clive Worsley playing backup on guitar, bass, and some of the fool's lines while also handling the parts of the Captain and Antonio, respectively.

In place of an opening storm at sea, we get a smoking hippie van protruding from the wings. This period vehicle of choice substitutes for the shipwrecked vessel that casts asunder Shakespeare's twins Viola (Carie Kawa) and Sebastian (Rafael Untalan), each to wander the isle of Illyria (read as the Upper Haight) thinking the other dead. Kawa's chirpy Viola wastes little time mourning her bro, instead bounding into the cross-dressing role of Cesario (a move primed to cause much Shakespearean confusion and subversion) so she may serve local ruler Orsino (Michael Gene Sullivan), the lovesick duke she secretly loves. She becomes his proxy in wooing the unyielding Lady Olivia (a fiery, formidable Vilma Silva), in mourning for her own brother and father. Of course, Viola's charms as Cesario turn the lady's head, but in the wrong direction.

In keeping with a theme run amok, Sullivan's Orsino is outfitted like Jimi Hendrix, and Viola-Cesario sports a Sgt. Pepper jacket. Some of these costumes work better than others. Sullivan's decidedly cool but never frivolous Orsino manages to wear his outfit with a measure of conviction. Meanwhile, Olivia's kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Warren David Keith), ridiculously done up in stringy long hair, a leather vest, and beads, is a slightly shaky Wavy Gravy. It's a vague distraction from Sir Toby's bluster and plotting with his inept pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an expertly cloddish Darren Bridgett) and Olivia's lady-in-waiting, Maria (Shannon Warrick), to show up the household's buzz kill, Malvolio (Ron Campbell).

Only this comical villain, appropriately enough, breaks the dominant color-and-inseam scheme with his subdued but fastidious attire (that is, before he's snookered into prancing around before Olivia in yellow tights). And Campbell's Malvolio is something of a standout in general, with his juicy personification of smug intolerance, foolish flirting, and outraged dignity. In fact, all Campbell has to do is roll his mouth around a vowel, cast a supercilious glance backward, or mumble an aptly gloomy Simon and Garfunkel lyric to have the audience guffawing.

But even with lots of willing talent among the cast, and even with Gordon's catchy original musical settings, the spectacle is all surface.

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