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Fast-Forwarding Through the Bard

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More than a couple of young sparks fancy themselves in love in Twelfth Night. And since this is one of Shakespeare's more effervescent comedies, all sorts of mix-ups must be sorted out along the twisted obstacle course leading to the blissful exchange of bodily fluids. In a grand circle, objects of desire don't return the adoration beamed their way, preferring to admire people who prefer someone else. Adding kick to the rampant frustrations now on view at Off-Tryon Theatre in NoDa, there are multiple confusions about gender, delusions of grandeur, mean-spirited practical joking, and outright stupidity.Self-absorption and superficiality run riot in the current Chickspeare production. The only youth onstage who seems to have a clue about the nature of true love is the delightful Viola, who disguises herself as Duke Orsino's page, "Cesario," and causes most of the confusion. So devoted is she to the Duke that anything he wishes becomes her goal. So she carries his suit to the Countess Olivia, who predictably tosses aside her grief for her dead brother and falls desperately in love with Viola, er, Cesario.

No need to fret over the bewitched Countess. God's great comedy machine has sent down yet another set of twins for Shakespeare to expertly manipulate to everyone's bewilderment. As usual, Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are among the perplexed, neither suspecting that the other is alive and nearby.

Of course, the Chickspeare banditas compound the confusion with their customary all-female casting. Or it might be more accurate to say they give us the flip side of the confusion that prevailed in Shakespeare's day when acting troupes were all-male.

It would be prudent for director Joanna Gerdy and her fellow conspirators to stop there. Doesn't happen. Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, looks about a decade younger than his niece, a minor annoyance. The script is slashed to the point where it runs about half the usual time, a major pain.

Chickspeare's aggressive fast-forwarding is most disruptive in the early scenes, where we're finding out who these people are and who loves whom. Some of the added shtick that diverts us from this task is quite enjoyable, and I think you'll like the design concept. After a thoughtfully added shipwreck scene to start things off, set designer Brian Ruggaber's pillars and scenic paintings evoke an Italian restaurant whose owner has more money than taste.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Sicilian cut lavished on their suits and hats by costumer Peter Smeal, Orsino and his entourage look like they might execute a Cosa Nostra hit on anyone opposing the Duke's romantic aspirations. Sir Toby, foolish enough to hope for the Countess's favor, seems to have stolen his outfit from the Mad Hatter.

We haven't seen CL's reigning Actress of the Year, Sheila Snow Proctor, doing one of her specialty pants roles in over a year. For the sybaritic Duke, Proctor goes to a chunkier look than usual, trading in the smirking irony of her past heroic Chickspeare sexploits for a bossy, barking boorishness. That approach meshes well with Joanna Gerdy's glum take on the grieving Countess -- followed by a raving restoration of her hormones.

Gerdy's solemnity as Olivia is not too distant from Nicia Carla Moore's sanctimoniousness as Malvolio. So it's not surprising that Gerdy, as director, chooses to be somewhat sympathetic toward the Puritan's humiliation. Hard not to be when Moore is giving Olivia's steward such a wonderfully starchy vanity.

We'd probably need considerably less shtick comedy if Kristen Foster, playing Viola, had been prodded toward a more steely masculinity -- or any masculinity at all -- masquerading as Cesario. She remains the earnest vortex of this production, amid the rapid swirl of narcissism. Meredith McBride, though afflicted with some of the prevailing giddiness, makes prudent choices portraying Viola's twin, Sebastian.

Most of the comedy licks were attempted by newcomers to the Chickspeare brood. Least impressive was Beth Pierce's blandly self-confident Sir Toby Belch. Emily Hewson was nearly as irritating as Aguecheek's mad outfit -- but not as detestable as some men I've seen as Sir Andrew.

The newbie I liked most was Meghan Lowther, looking like a cross between Chaplin and Mary Poppins, as Feste the clown. Though she participates in the humiliation of Malvolio, her harlequin warmth and grace seem to make her impervious to blame.

Most people at last Friday's Twelfth Night were more captivated by this 93-minute romp than I. With a less frenetic assault, the concept could mature into a fine wine. Let it breathe.

They do theater differently at The Farm, the brash new group that grows its own material and presents it in the strangest places. Last Saturday, while witnessing A Dream, or The Mirror, my wife and I were locked in a barbed-wire enclosure off North Davidson Street under a corrugated roof and told repeatedly, "This is life...this is life...this is life..."

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