Duke Orsino rocks out to his earbuds. Sir Andrew Aguecheek sports a colander for a helmet. Oh, and did we mention that all of the roles are played by women?
Conventional tropes get whacked upside the head in Michelle Hensley's fresh and unfussy take on "Twelfth Night."
Hensley strips the romantic adventure down to its bare essentials in this coproduction between the California Shakespeare Theater and San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts. Framed by stark lighting, minimal set pieces and scant costuming, this intimate staging gives the text an urgency and clarity that's quite refreshing. After a run at the Intersection through March 2, the show will go on the road to various homeless shelters, youth centers and other community venues throughout the Bay Area, bringing the Bard to the people.
Here Shakespeare's fantastical tale of separated twins, shipwrecks and mistaken identity unfolds on a small, empty stage where everything is left to the imagination. A few scarves suggest the crashing waves. The twins, Viola and Sebastian, are played by one actress (Cindy Im) who slips from one role to another by gliding in and out of a coat jacket. Malvolio's infamous yellow cross-gartered get-up is suggested by a small bit of yellow ribbon. All of it is performed in the round with the audience on all sides.
Hensley's bare-bones approach pays off most handsomely in its embrace of single-sex casting. Much is made of productions that feature only male actors, as was the fashion in Elizabethan England. But there is often something campy about such gender-bending. Here the female cast plays all the parts without a hint of vaudeville, and very soon one forgets that there is anything unusual about the identity politics at work.
In any case, much is topsy-turvy in this narrative, which hinges on the stormy nature of life, the way tragedy and love can both strike like lightning, leaving us breathless.
Plucked from a roiling sea, Viola hides her gender to serve the court of Orsino (a sensitive Rami Margron), a lovesick duke enraptured by the regal Olivia (Maria Candelaria). When the lady seems to fall for Viola, believing her to be a man, hijinks ensue.
Margron, who also plays the servant Maria, captures Orsino's silliness as well as his bluster. Candelaria nails the hairpin twists of falling out of mourning and into lust. Im doesn't always shade Viola and Sebastian with vivid enough hues but she's simply magical in the scene where she floats between male and female in a single breath.
While the shenanigans of the drunken oaf Sir Toby Belch (Catherine Castellanos) and his foppish sidekick Aguecheek (Patty Gallagher) aren't nearly as funny as they might be, their tug-of-war with Olivia's priggish steward Malvolio gives this production its emotional core. Nancy Carlin makes such a wonderfully officious Malvolio that the character seems far too sympathetic to be a mere object of jest. Malvolio usually feels like the one discordant element in an otherwise harmonious comedy. Here he emerges as almost a tragic figure. Like everyone else in the play, he falls for the wrong person and makes a fool of himself in the bargain. But he's the only one of all the lovers to lose his dignity as well as his heart.
By William Shakespeare, presented by California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts
Where: Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $20, 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org