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Ladies' Night with Chickspeare 

All-ladies theater group settles a score with finger-popping élan

In a recent poll of theatergoers in the U.K., Shakespeare's Twelfth Night placed eighth among the nation's favorite plays, narrowly beating out Macbeth (ninth) and King Lear (tenth) in the rankings and trailing only Hamlet (third) among the Bard's works that made the Top 10. Whatever audience preferences may be in America — or here in the Charlotte area — it's clear that local universities and theater companies don't mind bringing us Viola's romantic adventures and Malvolio's misadventures fairly often.

Chickspeare's current production with Actor's Theatre marks the fifth in the Metrolina area since October 2003, and that isn't counting three more you could have seen if you didn't mind day trips to Asheville, Salisbury or High Point. Go back slightly further to June 2002, and you'll find that Chickspeare — and director Joanna Gerdy — have a special affinity for the comedy that Will subtitled What You Will.

Or you might say they've waited more than 11 years to make amends. Gerdy had a fairly gifted cast when she first staged Twelfth Night in NoDa. She also had a daring concept in '02, transporting Viola's beloved, Duke Orsino, to a modern Sicilian-flavored locale where he and his entourage in their Italian threads seemed poised to execute a Cosa Nostra hit on anyone who opposed his designs on the dolorous Countess Olivia.

Of course, Chickspeare itself is high-concept, decreeing all-female casts for all its productions and flipping the script on Elizabethan practice, when all of Shakespeare's plays were introduced by all-male companies. With Sheila Snow Proctor still in her spitfire heyday taking on Orsino, Meghan Lowther making an auspicious debut as the clown Feste, and Nicia Carla Moore capping her CL 2002 Actress of the Year credentials with the Puritanical pretensions of Olivia's steward, Malvolio, the cross-dressing was deftly handled for the most part. Gerdy herself was the lugubrious countess whose hormones are wildly resurrected by Viola, cross-dressing as Orsino's page Cesario.

Trouble was, Gerdy and her gang crunched the five-act classic into a 93-minute blur and, at the heart of the story, they installed a Viola who couldn't be coaxed into endowing Cesario with any masculinity all evening long.

Neither of these problems crops up again in Chickspeare's maiden voyage at Actor's Theatre, where Proctor has stepped back from a starring role to a producing role and Gerdy has totally recast and reimagined what we see — brilliantly transforming the thrust stage on Stonewall Street to boot. Instead of walking in on an evocation of Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II, we're welcomed into Club Orsino. Cocktail tables flank the stage on three sides and two draft beers flow from the taps at the rear of the room, courtesy of NoDa Brewing Company.

The Duke presides over his club with a grace and ennui that may remind you of Bogart in Casablanca, but our host is none other than Feste, a precocious debut by high school sophomore Tommi Aleman, dressed up in top hat and tails. Tiffani Thomas' art-deco set design enhances the clubby mood, but it's Noel Friedline's original music and piano accompaniments that seal it.

Twelfth Night has more than its share of Shakespeare's greatest songs. Friedline's way is winsome enough with "Hey, ho, the wind and the rain," but he makes "Come Away, Death" into a smoky ballad — probably the most serious moment of the evening — and he showers the famed "O Mistress Mine" with irresistible Basie licks. Gerdy and Friedline expand the musical palette with other songs and instrumentals, so we're also hearing "Lover Man," "Angel Eyes" and "All of Me" in the club milieu. Thomas snaps her fingers to the bone over the course of the evening, cuing entrances and setting tempos, and she does a couple of songs, but the headliner at Club Orsino is Sarah Provencal as the Duke's chanteuse, grabbing the mic that descends from above and looking comfortable with it.

With a running time expanded to 140 minutes plus intermission, there's room for the Duke to establish a mellower charisma. It would be difficult to overpraise how Andrea King nonchalantly synthesizes Orsino's capriciousness, his world-weariness and his decorous cool into Viola's love-at-first-sight dreamboat. Her slouch and how Orsino simply nurses a drink speak volumes, signaling that this isn't a boorish mobster Duke but rather an amalgam of Bogie, Gatsby and maybe a sip of Sinatra.

This feat is enhanced once again by Carrie Cranford's chic costume design and Gerdy's sure instincts. I sometimes find myself gritting my teeth over how directors shuffle Shakespeare's text, but in this modernization, it really makes sense for us to grasp who Orsino is before we hear his familiar opening lines. All of those cues in the "If music be the food of love" speech — "play on," "that strain again," "Enough, no more" — have a special contemporary rightness when spoken by a club owner commanding his house musicians.

Beyond that, they are a lovable microcosm of the spoiled, self-indulgent suffering that marks Orsino's character and lends an edge of humor as we witness Viola's steadfast adoration. And dare I suggest it? The specially showcased "Play it again, Sam" aura of that speech may be the spark that inspired all the Casablanca flavor notes that have been poured into Gerdy's concept.

Intervals between King's appearances might grow somewhat tedious if it weren't for the vivacity that Alex Lee brings to Viola — with the best differentiation between Viola and Cesario that I've seen. Strutting a rickety walk that accentuates the garishness of her cross-gartered yellow stockings, Stephanie Dipaolo sternly anchors the comical sector of the plot as Malvolio, aided by the wiliness of Glynnis O'Donoghue as Olivia's maid Marie, the pure dopiness of Stephanie Gardner as Olivia's suitor Sir Andrew and the Falstaffian dissoluteness of Anne Lambert as Sir Toby Belch.

The Chix always bounced around numerous venues before resurfacing with their new ChicksBeer shtick at NoDa Brewing last year. Fifteen years after the guerilla group was born, Actor's Theatre is the most sophisticated venue they've ever played at — dry or wet, indoors or out. For the first time, the Chickspeare banditas look like they're working with a budget, and by god, they're proving they know how to use it. In a season when two all-male Shakespeare productions are running on Broadway, we have a counterargument here in Charlotte that suggests all-female makes just as much sense. Maybe more when Lee lets her hair down.

($25. Through Dec. 21. Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. 650 E. Stonewall St. For more information, call 704-342-2251 or visit www.chickspeare.com.)

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