Delightful Gender Bender Hilarity at Illyria

Christopher W. Jones and Elizabeth Tobias
Photo by Ian Flanders

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is a Shakespearean repository of culture, and with their delectable production of the Bard’s comedy Twelfth Night this Topanga troupe has outdone itself in letting its collective hair down. If WGTB’s version of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth borrows from burlesque’s conventions, Twelfth draws heavily from slapstick to produce a crowd-pleasing spectacle.


For some reason, hidden and mistaken identities are a long standing plot and character theatrical device dating back to the Greeks. Here, following a shipwreck the youthful Viola (Willow Geer) contrives to disguise herself as a eunuch, calling herself “Cesario.” Camouflaged as a male, she becomes an envoy for Duke Orsino (Max Lawrence, who was so great as Boxer in WGTB’s staging of Orwell’s Animal Farm a while back) in his campaign to woo Olivia (Christine Breihan), a countess.


But there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment - the cross-dressing Viola/ Cesario has fallen for the Duke. Meanwhile, the object of his desire, the well-to-do Olivia, is smitten by Viola/Cesario, whom she believes is male. Or, has the poet of Stratford-upon-Avon upended gender conventions and slyly suggested same sex attraction way back in 1601? Inquiring minds want to know!


WGTB mischievously deepens the same sex subplot by turning a male servant from Shakespeare’s Portfolio, Malvolio, into a female. A trick is played on Malvolio convincing the older woman that another female is attracted to her. For some reason, it is a dramatic trope that the sexuality of post-menopausal women is simply hilarious, and here this is amplified by the lesbian undertones of the trickery being perpetrated upon Malvolio. Melora Marshall, who has often played male parts on WGTB’s boards amidst the sylvan glade and in this comedy outdoes herself, playing the infatuated Malvolio to the hilt, including some gaudy, bawdy, good lordy lingerie that could have been purchased from a Frederick’s of Hollywood catering to clowns.


Melora brings the house down with her rascally ribaldry. (Well, actually WGTB is an amphitheater, but you get my point). On the other hand, I’d never believe that the lovely Willow was a eunuch, but in addition to being beautiful Ms. Geer is such a gifted actress that she somehow manages to pull her gender bending charade off.


It’s all heaps of good fun with almost a chuckle a minute, largely played for laughs. Other standouts in the large cast include Time Winters as the festive Feste, a jester with one of those goofy period Fool’s hats with three points festooned by jingle bells. Along with his comrade-in-gags, Christopher W. Jones as the aptly named Sir Toby Belch, they make for a droll Elizabethan era Abbott and Costello, aided and abetted by the cheeky Aguecheek (Frank Weidner). What a truly jolly trio!


As is her creative wont, WGTB’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer makes excellent use of her natural surroundings, with actors onstage, rollicking up the aisles, traipsing through the forest primeval - I have expected some to be soaring or suspended overhead. Methinks that for this highly imaginative director the theatrical notion of “the fourth wall” is merely something to be stormed, a wall that doesn’t exist (even if Mexico paid for it!). She has also rendered Shakespeare more accessible for a 21st century aud, without diluting the Bard’s artistry, including WGTB’s long standing, laudatory policy of nontraditional casting.


There’s a lot of singing and music (I assume the instrumentation is recorded, although a lovely young actress does play onstage what appears to be a lyre from time to time during the show) in this lively production. Although it is not a cure for the dire times we live in, this exceedingly good-natured comedy will help you get through these dark days. I had a ball, as did the nearly sold out audience. This play is rated “S”, because a SPLENDID time is guaranteed to all. I’d like to see it another twelve times!


FUN FACT OF THE REVIEW: Melora Marshall is in good company, as some of the greatest male actors in stage history have depicted Malvolio. In 1950, after the Battle of Britain, renowned thesp John Gielgud portrayed Malvolio when the famed Old Vic was reopened after being damaged during the Nazi blitz. Five years later Gielgud directed Sir Laurence Olivier as Malvolio and his then wife, Vivien Leigh, as both Sebastian and Viola at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.


Twelfth Night is being performed in repertory through Sept. 28 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see:


The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is available at: . Rampell is co-presenting the 400TH Anniversary Anti-Slavery Cinema Commemoration 12:00 - 10:00 p.m., August 25 at the L.A. Workers Center.
















Photos by Ian Flanders