SMC's 'Twelfth Night' impresses

When Santa Monica College student Krystyna Rodriguez dressed as a clown and burst onto stage singing William Shakespeare's classic words, "for the rain it raineth every day," you knew the performance was going to be something special. With a singing clown and ocean breezes, the SMC theater department opened the premiere of its new rendition of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," directed by professor Janie Jones, on Thursday night at SMC's Main Stage. Shakespeare's poetry was revived on a set designed to evoke a breezy beach completed with fenced walkways and seagull sounds emanating from the theater's speaker system. A girl named Viola, played by Tiana Randall-Quant, was shipwrecked and saved by a captain named Fabian, played by Nicolas Lozano. Believing her brother Sebastian to be dead, Viola dressed up as a man and took on the name Cesario to work for Duke Orsino, played by Robert Jensen. Meanwhile, a wealthy woman named Olivia was sought after by a group of suitors including Orsino and the buffoonish Sir Andrew, played by Jonathan Driegert.

Keeping an eye over everything was the pompous steward Malvolio, played by Ryan Haberfeld. Making mischief for them all, Olivia's raucous uncle Sir Toby Belch was played by Phillip Murray, and devilish servant Maria was played by Rossi-Anne Jaffe. One of the great challenges when staging Shakespeare is making it feel both accessible and new. In this production the combination of strong performances and skillful costume and set design did both. The production was a fresh, energetic take on the classic play with the setting changed from early 17th century England to 20th century America, with costumes reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel or a Mark Twain story set in the old south.

From the first scene, the play never lost a kinetic energy that resonated until the end.

Shakespeare's story of upper class silliness and comic relief at the expense of others felt immediate, and the audience was fully engaged, laughing at the jokes and cheering at the performances.

Jones said that much of the cast members were first-timers who "had never been in a play before." The cast fully embodied their characters and rarely ever struck a single false note.

Murray was a comic blast as Belch; his drunken, spirited rendition was almost a combination of Shakespeare and Jack Black.

The female leads shone onstage in dresses that made them look as if they stepped out of a 1930s technicolor film like "Gone With The Wind."

Jaffe's Maria in particular was a delight because she played the scheming role with real, malevolent glee.

Randall Quant's Viola mastered the tricky role for which she had to play a woman passing for a man. She had excellent timing and a real command of how to convey emotions with facial expressions.

But the real star of the night was Haberfeld as Malvolio, playing a poor, pompous soul who was taken advantage of with an awful prank. When his character exploded in rages at the drunken louts surrounding him, the audience cheered, completely taken in.

"Theater is this old-fashioned art in the modern age," Jones said. "In this modern age of technology, it is the one thing that involves the person. You can't substitute an actor even with a hologram."

This play was not the original production that Jones wanted to stage to launch this semester's theater season.

"We didn't get a chance to do the show that I had wanted to do," Jones said. "We weren't able to get the rights for the one I wanted, neither for my second or third choices. With the semester looming overhead, we just had to choose. You don't have to pay rights for Shakespeare."

Jones said she believes Shakespeare is universal.

"So many scenes in this play are relevant today the love affairs, being in love, the idea of right and wrong," she said. "What a joy to hear human emotions spoken through his poetry."

The play previewed on Oct. 10, and runs on weekends through Oct. 20.