Nascent Santa Monica theater company CityShakes finds an ally in Weezer’s frontman as it continues to shake up Shakespeare

By Michael Aushenker

Photos Courtesy of Allison Volk

Photos Courtesy of Allison Volk


In a brief two years, Santa Monica-based theater troupe CityShakes has already built a dedicated following — at least one rock star among them — with their contemporary stagings of Shakespeare classics.

The latest production: The Bard’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” which runs through Sunday at the CityShakes Studio on Lincoln Boulevard.

In Shakespeare’s 1601 play, Viola disguises herself as a man after twin brother Sebastian is believed lost in a shipwreck, and under the name Cesario falls under the employ of Duke Orsino. Orsino entangles Cesario as an intermediary to court his love interest Olivia, who promptly crushes on Cesario, unaware he is really a she. In Shakespearean fashion, more complications ensue.

In the CityShakes’ re-contextualized production, Viola is shipwrecked in 1980s suburbia and dresses as a man to work for the wealthiest guy in town, which seems like a good idea until her not-so-dead twin makes an appearance. In keeping with that milieu, there are some sex and drug references that led the troupe to add a parental discretion warning for audiences.

As with previous CityShakes productions, “Twelfth Night” director Brooke Bishop and writer/actress Allison Volk (co-founders of CityShakes) have given Shakespeare’s text a streamlining edit.

However, “all the dialogue is as Shakespeare wrote it. We never add words. We can remove or accentuate certain aspects of the text,” said CityShakes technical director and actor Colin Martin, who plays Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.”

“Modern audiences don’t have the same patience to stand around. [In Shakespeare’s times], they would stand for five hours. People would go to the theater and that would be the whole day,” Martin continued.

Bishop planted the seed for CityShakes doing Shakespeare on the Quad at Amherst College. After moving to Los Angeles and meeting Volk, the pair would work out at The Bar Method in Marina del Rey while commiserating over a lack of interest in theater among actors eyeing Hollywood.

They went on to launch the troupe with “Shrew” (based on “The Taming of the Shrew”) at a James Gray Gallery opening in Bergamot Station.

“People weren’t going into this black box theater world. We were trying to bring theater out,” Bishop said.

“As You Like It” followed in Rustic Canyon Park in Santa Monica Canyon.

It was after a staging of this second production that Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo introduced himself to Bishop.

“Rivers is one of my favorite artists. You can imagine how it must have felt when he walked up to me after ‘As You Like It’ and told me he liked what I was doing and wanted to be a part of it. I nearly fell over,” Bishop said.

The company went on to stage productions of “The Merchant of Venice,” “Macbeth” and, in April, “Romeo & Juliet.”

Rolling Stone magazine erroneously reported that CityShakes players in “Romeo & Juliet” sang background on Weezer’s recently released album
“Everything Will Be Alright
in the End.”

In fact, said Martin, Cuomo enlisted the actors to appear in a series of enigmatic web videos promoting the album’s pending release. These Weezer teasers — shot in West L.A. this summer — contained a time-travel story subtext referring to Cuomo’s father issues (which he has been documenting in song since 1994’s “Say It Ain’t So”).  Martin played a character who was a surrogate for Cuomo’s father, while Martin’s son portrayed Cuomo as a boy.

“He has very good instincts,” Martin said of working with Cuomo.

Since catching “As You
Like It,” Cuomo has become
a CityShakes supporter and
has also helped bring in audiences through his social media fan base.

“He supports Shakespeare that he can bike to,” Bishop said of Cuomo, a local who in January taped a set for Japanese TV
at TRiP.

Not since the quasi-humorous “Shrew” has CityShakes tackled comic Shakespearean material.

Compared to “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” “is like reading a different language,” said Martin, one of the troupe’s 20 players and the third person on board after Bishop and Volk.

A seasoned actor who has performed in many an unabridged Shakespeare production, Martin finds delivering CityShakes’ truncated prose more challenging.

“I don’t think memorizing Shakespeare is difficult, because the detail with which he paints his pictures verbally is striking when you see the whole thing,” Martin said.

CityShakes performances tend to fill their modest 75-seat space, and Bishop said the troupe is evaluating how to grow. Bishop and Volk also recently shot an independent film drawing from “Macbeth” that is due out in 2015.

In the meantime, they’re calling it a “Night” this weekend, when the play wraps up its run.

“I’m watching all these crazy people, laughing at them but also with them,” Bishop said of “Twelfth Night.” “We could’ve set it anywhere and it would’ve been just as fun.”

“Twelfth Night” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at CityShakes Studio (behind ModShop), 1454 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. $20 to $34.99.