Gender Confusion 

Strong performances overcome forced chaos in ATC's production of the Bard's 'Twelfth Night'

There is on stage at the Temple of Music and Art these days an embarrassing amount of bare human flesh, and it is available for viewing in a production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the opening play in Arizona Theatre Company's 40th season.

Don't misunderstand: This is hardly the all-nude version. Nor is there anything salacious enough to warrant the pre-show barring of underage theatergoers from the auditorium, as ATC was required to do 13 years ago during its controversial production of M. Butterfly.

Fear not, delicate reader. This is a perfectly chaste production, with the exceptions of a couple of faux-homoerotic kisses (the result of the mistaken identities on which Shakespeare's famous plot hinges) and a bawdy obsession with humor about male reproductive organs, i.e., dick jokes.

In fact, flesh is revealed only as a result of the rather nifty 1950s-era beachwear in which much of the cast is costumed. Women are dressed as ultra-glamorous bathing beauties, and men get to wear delightfully garish cabana clothes. The problem with these choices of clothing is audience members may find themselves distracted by that leg, and not necessarily in a good way.

Being in such intimate confines with the actors, it's hard not to focus on the extreme whiteness of one set of legs and the utter hirsuteness of another, the tiny bruise there, the shocking skinniness here and a gloriously bowed pair there. Just a sec--isn't there a play going on?

It must be noted that I am neither prude nor prurient nor perfectionist. Anyone who knows me is well aware that I do not hide my innocent enjoyment of viewing the human form, but I am also not myself blessed as an ideal specimen. So I have to praise these actors for performing the Bard's work unself-consciously attired as if they were on vacation in the Eisenhower-era Catskills.

Upon reflection, we notice that only the pompous and self-centered royalty on the Mediterranean island of Illyria dress in such fashion. Could this maybe be another version of the emperor's new clothes? It's open to the interpretation of the viewer.

Under the leadership of guest director Jon Jory (who last season directed Pride and Prejudice for ATC), Twelfth Night's tale is familiar to many theatergoers. In this idyllic setting, Duke Orsino (Stafford Clark-Price) is enamored with the neighboring Countess Olivia (Lisa De Mont), who does not return his affections, ostensibly because she is mourning the loss of her brother.

At the same time, Viola (Brenda Withers), a young noblewoman, survives a shipwreck and washes up on the same island. Sadly, she believes her twin brother, Sebastian (Kyle Sorrell), has perished in the same storm. To protect her identity and her honor, Viola dresses as a man and joins the court of Orsino, becoming a trusted page named Cesario.

Orsino enlists the skills of the more-pretty-than-handsome Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia finds herself taken with the young "man," as does the confused Orsino.

At the same time, Olivia's rambunctious uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Eddie Levi Lee), is carousing night and day with his companions, the snarky musician Feste (Michael Medeiros) and the diminutive Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Everett Quinton), a potential suitor for Olivia. This trio makes life hell for the pompous Malvolio (Jeff Steitzer), who is Olivia's steward, by fabricating a secret admirer for him, adding to the goofy mistaken identities.

The performances are uniformly strong, with special commendations due to De Mont's Olivia, Steitzer's Malvolio and Withers' Viola, whose husky voice makes her manly illusion all the more convincing. Withers also is able to smoothly deliver the gorgeous language of wooing that her character undertakes as Cesario. One can understand why Olivia falls for him/her.

Adding to the lush environment is the dreamy music by composer Peter Ekstrom and lovely beach-like set of off-kilter rolling dunes that the actors nevertheless are able to navigate without injury.

But the madcap nature of the play seems a little forced, with much scurrying stage business adding to the chaos. And as presented in this production, these lovers are very fickle. They fall for one another on first kiss and immediately shift their allegiances as soon as the respective identities are revealed.

It's true that Twelfth Night opens with one of Shakespeare's most famous aphorisms: "If music be the food of love, play on." But what we often forget is that soon after Orsino utters that immortal line, he becomes bored with the music and orders it stopped.

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