That's no man: Olivia (Elizabeth Heflin, right) falls for 
    Viola, disguised as Cesario (Josie de Guzman).
That's no man: Olivia (Elizabeth Heflin, right) falls for Viola, disguised as Cesario (Josie de Guzman).
T. Charles Erickson

Raising the Bard

Oh, happy day! The Alley Theatre's Gregory Boyd has taken on Shakespeare once again. Wildly innovative, wonderfully strange and never stodgy, Boyd's Shakespeare can always be counted on to shake up our schoolmarmish expectations of the greatest playwright in the English language. And Boyd's deliciously entertaining production of the comedic Twelfth Night or What You Will might be the director's best dance ever with the Bard.

At the start we learn that two of the central characters, Viola and Sebastian, are twins who have traveled together only to get lost and separated at sea. Shakespeare picks up the story with Viola's arrival in the city of Illyria, where she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and finds employment with Orsino the duke (Todd Waite). Not only is Viola (Josie de Guzman) herself a compelling sprite of a character, but so are the oddballs spinning around her. And each one is rendered with unequivocal joy by the stunning ensemble Boyd has put together from his resident company members. They work together like fine clockwork, telling Viola and her brother Sebastian's tales of love and gender-bending with heartfelt charm.

There's always aristocracy in Shakespeare's world. And it takes on glamorous proportions here. As played by Waite, Orsino the duke is a pop star of a ruler. His long hair flows over his naked, tanned chest as he struts around, preening and sighing like a lovesick teen. He's pining for the beautiful Countess Olivia (Elizabeth Heflin), who is fairly incandescent with her crown of golden hair. But Heflin's Olivia is no easy catch. Aloof in her sadness (she's suffered a recent death), Olivia has no interest in Orsino.


Twelfth Night...

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue

Through March 14; 713-228-8421. $35-$50

Of course it is Cesario (secretly Viola) who is sent to deliver Orsino's dispatches of love. And in true Shakespearean style, it isn't long before Olivia falls head over heels for the youthful messenger. What follows is a farce of hysterical proportions. Dressed as a boy, Viola must find a way of avoiding Olivia's amorous advances. Even worse, Viola soon discovers that she herself is in love with the duke, but she has no way of telling him without revealing her true identity. What's a girl dressed up as a boy to do?

While the beautiful people are figuring out their troubles, the hangers-on in Olivia's house are working out their more plebian problems. Leading the pack is Sir Toby Belch (James Black), Olivia's poor and dissolute uncle. Wearing a bulbous nose and a big belly, Black is the model of a low-down drunk. He manipulates a visiting wealthy fop named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (John Tyson) into believing that the lovely Olivia might fall in love with him. Tyson is hysterical here, tromping across the stage dressed in his pink high-heeled shoes, flame-red stockings and white wig. But Sir Toby and Aguecheek are more than simple buffoons: Their clowning has a wistful soul to it. When Feste (Jeffrey Bean), Olivia's jester, plays love songs at the men's drunken binges, the stage fills up with the lonely ache that often comes from too much wine and not enough women.

The steward of Olivia's household is a puritan fool named Malvolio (Paul Hope). He wants nothing to do with any of the fun and games conjured by the clowns. So, of course, much fun is had at his expense, especially after a manufactured note convinces the sour party pooper that Olivia is in love with him. Hope has a great deal of fun playing the ridiculous Malvolio, who's encouraged to prance about in yellow stockings for his horrified lady's benefit. The forever disapproving steward is also persuaded to smile for his lady, and Hope has a heyday with Malvolio's hilariously hideous attempt at grinning.

Unbeknownst to Viola, her dear brother Sebastian (Daniel Magill) finds his way to Illyria at last. Neither twin knows the other has survived. There's still more fun to be had in the farcical moments that ensue. Sebastian gets mistaken for Cesario/Viola and vice versa. One of the best moments of the night happens when beautiful Olivia sees that there are two of her precious Cesarios and exclaims, "Most wonderful!"

Fabio Toblini's gorgeous costumes evoke all sorts of eras, seeming to move from the Spanish Renaissance to the 18th century to who knows where else. But they're all fabulous to look at and somehow make perfect sense in this world. And Kevin Rigdon's elegantly simple set of doors and scrims and gilded prosceniums is impressive in its understated beauty. All the energies in this fine production are held together by Boyd's brave, wonderfully inventive direction and his willingness to make Shakespeare utterly new all over again.


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