It sounds like a gimmick: A production of Shakespeare with historical fidelity, including no sets, Elizabethan costumes, period musical instruments and, crucially, men in all the roles. The notion is so retro that it's radical. Its "Twelfth Night" is a work of simplicity and beauty; it's a reminder of how magical theatergoing can be.

It sounds like a gimmick: A production of Shakespeare with historical fidelity, including no sets, Elizabethan costumes (hand-stitched, no less!), period musical instruments and, crucially, men in all the roles. The result could have been a quaint museum piece, guaranteed to tickle the fancy of purists and academics and no one else. But in the hands of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater Co., the notion is so retro that it’s radical. Its “Twelfth Night” is a work of simplicity and beauty; it’s a reminder of how magical theatergoing can be.

This production, marking the 400th anniversary of the play, originated last year at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and was wildly successful. The L.A. engagement marks the launch of the first U.S. tour for the 6-year-old troupe. (Alas, all 15 Southland performances are sold out.)

Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy has always been one of his most accessible and popular works, which is not surprising: A shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as the boy Cesario and falls in love with her employer, Orsino, the duke of Illyria, who in turn is smitten with Olivia, who suddenly finds herself inexplicably attracted to Cesario/Viola.

Most productions, from high school outings to all-star Broadway revivals, push for laughs. The Globe team, under the expert direction of Tim Carroll, certainly offers hilarious moments, such as Olivia trying to maintain her dignity (she is, after all, a countess mourning the death of her brother and father) even as she yields to her oh-who-am-I-kidding passion for the young and adorable Cesario.

But the troupe goes deeper than farce. Shakespeare’s play deals with themes of loss (of youth, of loved ones, of life). And this “Twelfth Night” illuminates the occasional cruelty beneath the clowning, the foolishness behind the romance and the aching melancholy underneath the lightness. The plot may be wacky, but the Globe players make sure it’s also wistful.

The current Shakespeare’s Globe in London was the brainchild of American actor-director Sam Wanamaker, who wanted to build a theater on the site of the original Globe (1599-1642) that would re-create the space as closely as possible. It opened in 1997 and performances there are an eye-opener. The monologues, for example, take on a new urgency thanks to the close physical proximity of the audience (particularly the “groundlings,” the low-paying viewers who stand throughout the performance at the foot of the stage). After this, it’s hard to watch Shakespeare on a proscenium stage.

There are moments during “Night” when one misses that setup, but the Freud Theater has been reconfigured to re-create that intimacy. The backstage area has been set up with rows of bleachers in an elongated U shape, with a very long, narrow stage that keeps the actors within touching distance. In truth, the layout resembles Middle Temple Hall, where the play debuted in 1602 (or even New York’s Circle-in-the-Square) more than the current Globe, but the transformation is effective. (In fact, this production’s initial and final U.K. perfs were at Middle Temple Hall.)

The closeness allows for moments of lovely simplicity, as when the somber clown Feste sings an a capella ballad as Orsino and Viola/Cesario simply sit and look at each other, confused and thrilled by their mutual attraction.

The casting of men as women adds a layer to the play’s themes of identity and disguise (half the characters at some point pretend to be someone else). The Globe has a policy of nontraditional casting: not only color-blind, but gender-blind as well (Vanessa Redgrave was an astonishing Prospero in “The Tempest” a few years ago).

The all-male casting here is part of that policy and, while all the actors are good, it’s the men in women’s roles who make the biggest impression. They make the women so distinct, so specific, that the casting twist is quickly forgotten — until the play requires attention to it.

A lot of the laughs derive from the appearance of Viola’s look-alike brother Sebastian (Rhys Meredith), which leads to comedy of mistaken identity. For once, the characters’ confusion is understandable. Hey, the audience occasionally gets the two actors confused — which means no one onstage has to push hard to overcome the implausibility. The physical similarity of Brown and Meredith pays off with some big laughs, even after the siblings’ poignant reunion.

Liam Brennan as Orsino, Bill Stewart as Olivia’s coarse relative Sir Toby and Albie Woodington as another of her suitors, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, are all good. Even better are Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste and Timothy Walker as Malvolio, whose uptight snobbery becomes energetic foolishness when he is tricked into believing Olivia loves him.

But the trio of “women” steal the show. Brown is a delight as Viola, the center of the play, as is Peter Shorey as Olivia’s earthy and trouble-making servant Maria.

As Olivia, though, Mark Rylance deserves special mention. At the Globe in London, he was wonderful as a Dubya-style Richard II this summer and unforgettable a year ago as a last-minute replacement for an ailing colleague in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Rylance seems capable of portraying anyone, from king to rustic (or, from top to Bottom).

His Olivia is so vulnerable, yearning and aware of her folly that the audience can’t wait for her every appearance. To paraphrase Malvolio in the play, Rylance may have been born great, has certainly had greatness thrust upon him (he’s been the sole artistic director of the Globe since its rebirth) and has achieved greatness in his performances. He’s an important talent.

Other big plusses are the costumes and design by Jenny Tiramani and the music by Claire van Kampen, nicely arranged by Keith McGowan. The booking is a coup for UCLA Live, topper David Sefton and its Intl. Theater Festival. The production next moves to Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Chicago, where it wraps in December.

Twelfth Night

Freud Playhouse, UCLA; 450 seats; $60 top

Production

2 Luck Concepts, John Luckacovic and Eleanor Oldham present Shakespeare's Globe Theater Co. production of William Shakespeare's comedy, performed in two acts. Directed by Tim Carroll.

Creative

Costumes, Jenny Tiramani; lighting Stan Pressner; music, Claire van Kampen; choreography, Sian Williams; historical music, research and arrangements, Keith McGowan; musicians, McGowan, Robin Jeffrey, Sharon Lindo, Nicholas Perry, William Lyons, Tom Lees. Artistic director, Mark Rylance. Opened, reviewed Oct. 22, 2003. Running time: 3 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Antonio - Patrick Brennan Viola - Michael Brown Duke Orsino - Liam Brennan Fabian/Sea Captain - James Garnon Curio/Officer - Richard Glaves Feste - Peter Hamilton Dyer Sebastian - Rhys Meredith Valentine/Priest/ Officer - Terry McGinity Olivia - Mark Rylance Maria - Peter Shorey Sir Toby Belch - Bill Stewart Malvolio - Timothy Walker Sir Andrew Aguecheek - Albie Woodington

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