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A 'Night' to Remember

[whitespace] 12th Night Shakespearean Fans: Natalie Venetia Belcon as Olivia and James Avery as Sir Toby Belch in '12th Night'

Flamenco flourishes add to air of romance in SJ Rep's '12th Night'

By Heather Zimmerman

UNUSUAL TWISTS and "updates" on Shakespeare's plays seem to have become as far-reaching and abundant as the Bard's body of work itself, so it can be a truly gratifying experience when a creative spin on a Shakespearean classic works as well as the San José Repertory Theatre's flamenco-infused 12th Night, which seems to have found the perfect way to prove that music is indeed, as the play's Duke Orsino proposes, "the food of love."

Director Michael Butler uses flamenco music and dance to frame the play with mischievousness, sensuality and an almost mystical quality in the already mysterious land that is the setting for 12th Night. Here, flamenco underscores the characters' loves and desires, rendering them more physical. The lovers are more demonstratively affectionate and most every character, not just Shakespeare's designated clowns, gets in on some entertaining physical comedy.

Gorgeous choreography by flamenco dancer Yaelisa (who also dances in the show with Omri Dahan) and tantalizing musical performances by Jose Manuel Blanco (who also appears as Feste) and Jason McGuire sometimes take center stage and sometimes are used to punctuate a scene. Whether as a focal point or a complement, the flamenco numbers are seamlessly integrated into this convoluted comic tale that grapples with gender roles, mistaken identity and just about every form of love and lust.

Viola (Kelly Curtis) is separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Mark Bennington), during a shipwreck and finds herself stranded in a strange land. Viola assumes a masculine identity, Cesario, and goes to work for the Duke Orsino (George Castillo), who uses "him" as a messenger of his unrequited love for the Countess Olivia (Natalie Venetia Belcon), who, in turn, falls for the disguised Viola.

The performances are generally very strong and seem to take a lighthearted, zesty cue from the flamenco theme. As Olivia, Belcon is every inch royal, imbuing her character with imperturbably dignified control. Whether she's keeping the love-struck Duke Orsino at bay or revealing her own insatiable desire for Cesario, Belcon's countess is no guileless ingenue; her intelligent, mature Olivia knows how to get what she wants.

In fact, it's Olivia's particularly amorous pursuit of Cesario that is one of the clearest reflections of the delightful physicality brought to 12th Night by flamenco. Butler makes sure that the play's lovesick characters don't merely speak of love, they act on it. His is an especially lusty interpretation, from the roguish Sir Toby's (James Avery) more predictable fondling of his mistress, Maria (Alma Martinez), to Olivia's acrobatic attempts to seduce Cesario.

Seemingly at odds with such open displays of passion is Olivia's stodgy, pious steward, Malvolio (Remi Sandri). But Sandri's interpretation gives this cold fish some true heart--although his Malvolio is puffed up to the gills in pomposity, Sandri ensures that the self-righteous puritan is also somehow sympathetic.

Like the puritan's sudden transformation from piety to passion, the elements that are so appealingly united in this production are startlingly disparate: an industrial, yet homey set; costumes that recall no exact time period; precision flamenco performances and bumbling clowning; Elizabethan English mingled fluidly with Spanish phrases--all of these come together with a pleasing harmony that's almost mysterious, in much the same way that the motley crew of characters in 12th Night find themselves inextricably--and sometimes inexplicably--linked by love.

12th Night plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm, plus Wednesday (Dec. 23) at noon through Jan. 9 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$32. (408/291-2255)

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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