Unrequited Ham

    William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”” was the original romantic comedy, ripe with such intricate explorations as gender, identity, homoeroticism and desire. It’s too bad that under director Sarah Rasmussen’s adaptation, all these complex themes become simplified into what seems to be a contest for Most Ludicrous Character Portrayal in a Shakespearean Play.

    The UCSD theatre department’s version of “Night”” begins with Viola (Rebecca Kaasa), a witty beauty shipwrecked on the shore of Illyria. Believing herself to be the wreck’s sole survivor in this strange land, she disguises herself as a man and finds employment with the self-absorbed Duke Orsino (Scott Drummond), where she becomes not only his favorite page, but also a confidante. As they grow closer, she falls in love with him, but — in a true Shakespearian love polygon — Orsino pines for the stunning Olivia (Hilary Ward), who despises him. When Orsino sends his new page to woo Olivia for him, Viola finds herself the object of Olivia’s affection instead.

    But Drummond’s languid sighs and superbly melodramatic mannerisms, along with Kaasa’s quiet, longing stares and inner struggles, are completely overshadowed by the excessive physical and slapstick humor injected into the play’s second storyline. While it is understandable that the supporting characters provide comic relief, Rasmussen’s comedic overkill strips them of all substance, instead turning them into bizarre caricatures. Sir Toby (Liz Jenkins), Olivia’s carousing uncle, seems a crude and boisterous oaf, while his friend Sir Andrew (Brian Hostenske), one of Olivia’s highly unsuccessful suitors, is reduced to such a childish, giggling simpleton that the notion of him courting anyone, much less feel any persisting emotion, is inconceivable.

    Though the play does manage moments of humor — Sir Toby and the gang gleefully witness their enemy Malvolio (the deliciously entertaining Eduardo Placer) fall for their malicious prank — the result is an overdramatic Shakespeare reading (at best) and a cacophonic rendition of the “Three Stooges”” (at worst). Even the wisest character in the play, Feste the Fool, played by Dorian Christian Baucum (whose mannerisms are reminiscent of Robin Williams on Ritalin), is prone to fall into this trap whenever he’s around the oversimplified characters.

    What’s truly tragic is that this hammy interpretation completely obliterates the central romance of the romantic comedy, leaving the play loveless and unbalanced. What should be tender moments of attraction between Viola and Orsino, such as a touching scene in which a still-disguised Viola describes her sorrowful but abiding love for him, are entirely eclipsed, transforming a critical and potentially moving moment into nothing more than a throwaway scene. This effectively detaches us from Viola’s heartbreak, and though the intensity of her sorrow washes over us, we are left untouched and incapable of sharing her pain. It’s unfortunate that such rare moments of emotional depth must be sacrificed on the altar of the absurd, all for the sake of a few laughs.

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