Woodward Shakespeare Festival struggles a little with “Twelfth Night,” which opened the company’s fourth season last weekend. It’s easy to guess why: This hard-working theater company has had a lot on its plate recently, most prominently a well-publicized move from the Woodward Park amphitheater to a more intimate space at the park’s group activities area. That move required building a temporary stage and arranging the basics of lighting and sound design in an outdoor space, all from scratch.
There’s a lot of heart on display in this earnest production — and some nice theatrical moments as well. But in terms of the company’s body of work, “Twelfth Night” is not in the top tier. I trust that as the company gets more comfortable with the logistics of its new performing space, it will have more time to focus on the nitty-gritty of performing Shakespeare.
The strongest element in this “Twelfth Night,” directed by Lars Thorson, is a focused group of women. Casey Ballard’s Viola, the shipwrecked twin who disguises herself as a man, has some fine moments as she eases into Shakespeare’s silly cross-dressing plotline. Her scenes with Gabriela Lawson, as Olivia — the noblewoman who has fallen in love with “Cesario,” who is Viola in disguise — have a nice zip and romantic crackle. (Both are pictured above.) When they’re on stage together, the production moves past a mere recitation of text and into the realm of theater. They come closest to fulfilling this play’s great potential for romance.
Also quite strong — if just from sheer enthusiasm and physical dedication — are the two “fools” of the production, Feste (Renee Newlove) and Fabian (Guinevere Thelin). These roles usually are played by men, but Thorson’s decision to cast women works well, especially within the gender-bending conceit of the play. Newlove, decked out in an amusing fez, pumps out a bawdy and raucous performance, and if she occasionally plays it a little too over-the-top, that’s a minor sin for a clown. I always felt as if Newlove really understood her text, which is a quality that is essential. Thelin is in some ways even more of a natural comedic talent on stage — pumping her little fists in aggravation, relishing her role as spitfire — and consistently getting the laughs. Michelle Ramirez, as the gentlewoman Maria, has some nice moments as well.
Of the men in the cast, S. Eric Day — as the uncouth Sir Toby Belch — connects best with his character. His grumpy, slovenly take is a consistent highlight. Other performances are uneven: either too clenched (as in the case of the other twin, Sebastian, played by Victor Sandoval) or scattered (Ben McNamara’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek). I was most put off by the Malvolio story line (Olivia’s steward, played by Stephen Torres), which to me just didn’t work, starting with the monklike costume and ending with a buffoonish portrayal that seemed at odds with the snobbish, wannabe aristocratic bent of the character.
Overall, there were aspects of the opening-night performance that were underprepared in terms of blocking and comic timing. Thorson adds choreographed stage movement both at the beginning and the end of the show, but, again, these interludes lacked confidence and precision.
As far as the new space at the group activities center, which the company has dubbed the Theater in the Glen, goes: It’s wonderful. Yes, there were problems with the almost non-existent lighting (the dimness actually hurt my eyes) and the sound, but I thoroughly enjoyed the forestlike setting, which is much more intimate than the concrete expanse of the amphitheater. I like the relationship between audience and stage, and the expanse of grass makes all the difference in terms of ambiance. (And likely heat as well.) I know that I’m looking forward to “Hamlet” in August.