Directorial concepts are a chancy thing. Some are born right, some achieve rightness, and some have rightness thrust upon them. It's always a good thing when they grow out of the text, particularly in Shakespeare, but always a bad thing when the concept is pasted on top of the text. Sometimes, though, even if the concept isn't suggested by the text, it works like a charm because the mix is logical and conducive, the language slides easily from one period to another, and the text is still clear and correct. That's what happens in this glowing adaptation of Shakespeare's gift to Queen Elizabeth I on the 12th day of Christmas.
It was, and is, a romp, and placing it in the poverty-stricken Great Depression in Appalachia gives it a rich subtext and creates an ambience that seems like down-home, gol-darn Illyria. Duke Orsino (Gerald Hopkins) is a big wheel in the local coal mines, and his Viola/Cesario (Kelley Birney), in a cap and tired jacket, looks very much like Mickey Rooney right out of a '30s Depression-era B-film. The Bard's quartet of jesters—Sir Toby Belch (Robert L. Williams), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Andrew Elvis), Fabian (Joel West), and the incorrigible Feste (Sean Galuszka)—could have walked off the back lot at Republic Pictures in that dust-riddled era. It's a delightful image glowing behind the text.
But this concept is not camp. Director Susan Lambert keeps it on a dead-serious level, which gives it an individual, honest, and true-to-the-text aura that breathes life into her imaginative staging. Even the poetry sounds right with her cast's vaguely hillside accents. The mood is also helped immeasurably by the musical accompaniment of "Rev. Karl and the Pikeville Pickers," under the very authentic guidance of Rob Kendt as music director—not only in musical numbers, including such standards as "That Good Ol' Mountain Dew" and a showstopper in the Toby/ Aguecheek/Fabian/Feste foot-stomping version of "Won't Git Drunk No More," but also in the subtle and rightly poetic insertion of bits of other Appalachian standbys for emotional effect.
Lambert's casting couldn't be better. Hopkins' stalwart hero image is on the nose, as is Susan Brindley's stalwart but girlish Olivia. Birney's Viola is a joy, allowing the viewer to forget she's cross-dressing most of the time, and her boyish appeal is winning. It's echoed by Eric Almquist as her wandering brother, Sebastian. As the priggish, officious Malvolio, Gene Gillette is inventive, likable in spite of his pomposity, and very funny. Special mention has to be made of Williams, Miller, and West as the Bard's drunken trio, and particularly of the refreshingly sober version of Feste, as Galuszka lights up the stage whenever he's on, especially when he vocalizes a local tune, as authentic in sound as in feel. Dave Larson's eccentric heel-clicking choreography is also notable and so right it takes one back home.
"An Appalachian 12th Night," presented by Dancing Barefoot Productions at the Globe Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Rd., West Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sept. 20-Nov. 10. $20 (Cash only). (310) 285-5575.