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Poor monsters

A bittersweet "Twelfth Night" at Evergreen

"Twelfth Night" at Evergreen State College

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In the words of director Jeffrey Painter, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night "celebrate[s] the world turning upside down." I've seen it produced as an antic farce, and I've seen Kenneth Branagh's downhearted production. The Evergreen Shakespeare-Animal Fire co-production running this weekend and next in The Evergreen State College's Experimental Theater draws from both ends of the emotional spectrum, and to lovely effect.

I know the play well, having essayed Sir Toby in an undergrad production and Feste the fool in a smaller affair years later. Yet this Evergreen production surprised me, not least because it samples the storm from The Tempest and romantic dialogue from Romeo and Juliet in a clever quest to amplify the material. I was also impressed by Painter's out-of-the-box casting choices. Here we have a petite boatswain, a thin Toby Belch, a black Andrew Aguecheek, a timid Orsino, and a Feste who appears to be the love child of Bob Dylan and Robin Williams. Tod Davies is amusing in the latter role while serving as his own one-man band.

Other standouts in a strong cast include Grant McGee's earnestly officious Malvolio, Jay Minton's ambiguous Antonio, and Amy Shepard's Maria, a character she gives a complete arc from despondent to love-drunk. Ian McNeely steps from behind the cowboy guitar of Harlequin's Taming of the Shrew to inhabit a boisterous Toby; he also devised the agile fight scenes. But the star of the show, as it should be, is Juliana Kimbrell's "Cesario," desperate Viola's conflictedly drag alter ego. The Bard's little "monsters" chase Cupid through a whirlwind of gender confusion.

Painter too often blocks for proscenium rather than "ET's" thrust seating, but he also makes engaging comic use of set designer Meg Swanson's fountain and elicits poignant performances throughout. He quickly establishes a delicate tension as a mixed bag of stylistic elements merge into one plausible, sleepy seaside village. Shakespeare's Illyria is a land of romantic befuddlement, where "what you will" can happen and eventually does. It makes for a dreamily bittersweet idyll.

[Evergreen Shakespeare and Animal Fire Theater Group, Twelfth Night, through Jan. 29, Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m., free, the Experimental Theatre at TESC, Olympia, 360.867.5213]

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