Hunger Artists' staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night ranks among the most entertaining local productions of English literary history's most glorified hack that these jaundiced eyes have seen.
Director Kelly Flynn's concept—setting this comedy of cross-dressing and desperate love in the 1970s porn industry—doesn't really work as a porn study, but the 1970s garb, soundtrack and facial hair recall that halcyon period and help Shakespeare's lofty language rest a bit easier on the ears.
But what really makes this sing are the performances, particularly from actors who don't seem slavishly devoted to convincing us that what they're saying is eloquent as much as they are in having a blast onstage. Mark Coyan, an actor who has never been shy about swaggering across the stage, delivers one of his funniest performances to date as Toby Belch, and Terri Mowrey, Jason Lythgoe and Scott Kiester also shine as, respectively, pusher, puritan and porn star wannabe.
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But it's the performance of Melanie Gable, as the young woman Viola, who dresses as a man in order to gain employment only to fall in love with her male employer, that finally reminds us that, even in a mostly brain-dead comedy like Twelfth Night, Shakespeare could write great lines, if not great plays.
Twelfth Night was Shakespeare's last truly warm comedy. Over the next decade, he would write his great, bloody tragedies and more unpleasant "problem plays" like Measure for Measure. Though Twelfth Night is exuberant and frivolous, there are many lines where characters speak of fleeting time and intense sadness, and you can't help but think Shakespeare was wrestling with issues of mortality and artistic purpose in its pages.
If this play does embody struggle, then the character of Viola, the one truly conflicted character, wrestles the most. Unable to tap into the passion of her feminine nature but incapable of the macho rage that a frustrated dude could muster, Viola is muted and muzzled, mostly powerless to act in a play that revolves around her. Gable's understated, measured performance manages to make this passive yet yearning character feel truly alive. When she delivers one of the greatest lines ever written about the seductive, if desperate, melancholy of love lost or never obtained ("She sat like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief"), you can almost feel something throb in your throat. That is, if feeling things like that didn't make you such a sissy-boy.
TWELFTH NIGHT, HUNGER ARTISTS THEATER COMPANY, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 12. $15-$18.