Willows Main Stage Theatre reborn in Concord Willows shopping center and Concord's Butterfield 8 bends gender in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"!

Photo #1: Cesario (Jon Butterfield) pleads his master's love lorn case to Olivia (Billy Higgins) in Twelfth Night!
Photo by: Judy Potter

Photo #2: David Burnham woo's his audience at the Willows Theater's re-opening in Concord!
Photo by: Charlie Jarrett

The Butterfield 8 Theatre in Concord has just opened with a delightful production of Shakespeare’s wonderful comedy, "Twelfth Night" or "What You Will". What is very unique about this company is that they often tackle plays in ways that are not what you might normally expect. For example, this play is being produced with two entirely different casts, one, all male and the other, all female, a real gender bender if “You Will”.

When William Shakespeare’s company performed these productions, only men played all the characters. We often smile when we think what it might have been like to go to one of those all male productions, but now you can actually go and see either an all male cast or an all female cast, on separate nights.

Actually this concept is quite apropos because when Shakespeare wrote many of his comedies, the plots were often based on mistaken identities, where men and women assumed opposite gender roles and cross dressed in order to fool the other characters. I saw the all-male version on opening night. The play centers around a brother by the name of Sebastian (Josh Travierso) and his sister, Viola (John Butterfield). Viola quickly assumes the role of a male to protect herself as a stranger in a strange land. Sebastian and Viola were both well educated as children, as they were royalty in their home country. While on a journey together, their ship was lost as it encountered a terrific storm. The fraternal twins were washed overboard into the briny sea and were separated in the midst of the storm. Viola assumed her brother was lost at sea. She was subsequently rescued by another ship in the same area off the coast of Illyria, an area which is generally considered today to be modern day Albania or Croatia.

When the ship docked in Illyria, Viola disguised herself as a young man and assumed the name of Cesario. The ship’s captain guided the very bright young woman to a job as a page for a local Duke, Duke Orsino. He was quite impressed with the well educated and well versed “page” and pressed “him” into his service as an intermediary in his romantic pursuit of the very lovely Lady Olivia (Billy Higgins). Olivia is in mourning as her father and brother have both recently died and frankly is not even interested in courting anyone. But Viola, in the disguise of young Cesario, is quite persuasive as a romantic emissary and is quite believable as a very handsome young man. In fact, Cesario speaks so sweetly and romantically of love, that before long, Olivia finds herself falling in love with Cesario, believing her to be a man.

In the meantime, Viola’s brother, Sebastian had also been rescued from death at sea (unbeknownst to his sister) and with the help of Antonio (Charlie Guitron), his rescuer, soon finds himself approaching and entering the same city/state where his sister is masquerading as a page for Duke Orsino, the political ruler of this community.

Typical of Shakespeare’s comedies, there is at least one and often more than one sub-plot designed to provide a foil for more comic characters and comedy in general. In “Twelfth Night”, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Matthew Gardner), has a serious drinking problem, and constantly is seeking out partying companions and drink related devilment to participate in. Olivia has a very pompous head steward by the name of Malvolio (Alan Cameron). Sir Toby decides to embarrass Malvolio and is joined by both Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, Maria (Jeremy Cole), and her father’s favorite “fool”, Feste (Edwin Peabody). They have all colluded in an effort to bring Malvolio down off his high horse. Included in this sub-plot we find another suitor to Lady Olivia, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Hardie), who is a drinking companion of Sir Toby Belch, who is also enlisted in the Malvolio embarrassment escapade as well. I won’t go into the details of this sub-plot, but it is outrageously funny.

Then, in a second sub-plot, Sir Anguecheek has become discouraged in his pursuit of Lady Olivia’s hand in marriage, when he finds out that she apparently likes the young page, Cesario. Sir Toby Belch, determined to keep his drinking buddy (Sir Anquecheek) around, tricks Sir Aguecheek into believing that if he simply challenges the young Cesario to a duel, Cesario will leave the scene in cowardice and provide an opportunity for Sir Aguecheek to once again go after the Lady.

There are at least 16 characters played by 15 different actors, more that I have space in this article to provide adequate kudos to for their excellent portrayals. While the entire cast is up to speed and deliver heartfelt performances, I need to specifically praise several outstanding portrayals, particularly that of Viola/Cesario, played and directed by John Butterfield himself. Billy Higgins is terrific as Lady Olivia, as is Jeremy Cole, who plays Olivia’s lady in waiting Maria. David Hardie and Matthew Gardner are wonderful as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch. Edwin Peabody is a delight as he jests, reads poetry and sings for his lords and ladies. Knowing many of the actresses who will be playing the same roles in the all-female version, I hope I may be able to partake of their production as well. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, my wife and I are preparing for trip to Ireland in the very near future and may have to forego a few shows, including the female version of this show.

These fun filled performances are very reasonably priced community theater productions at $12 for seniors and students and $18 for adults, for the most part delivered with casts consisting of both amateur and near professional level actors. These shows will continue on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 3 p.m., now through April 17th. The Butterfield 8 Theater Company uses the Cue Productions Live performance space at 1835 Colfax Street in Concord, only one and a half blocks East of Todos Santos square in downtown Concord. Tickets may be selected and purchased depending on which show you wish to see first, the all-male or all-female cast, by calling Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or by purchasing tickets at the door. You can also gather more information by going online to http://www.facebook.com/l/d6b0bN4DthfMsRNC45gGjogJg_Q/www.b8company.com or http://www.b8company.com/ for more information about the company and the show.

Youthful Broadway singing sensation, David Burnham, brought whoops, and whistles and wow’s from a delighted audience, over and over again, to the newly re-opened Willows Main-stage Theater in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord.

Back in January, I wrote in my column about the Concord Willows Main-stage Theater being reborn and the efforts of new Artistic Director Eric Inman and managing director, David Faustina to re-ignite public and local city leaders’ interests in reutilizing the wonderful theatrical facility in the Willows Shopping Center, which had laid dormant for well over a year. Unfortunately, when the economy went south several years ago, and the rent for the Willows Shopping Center theatrical space went north, the Willows Theatre Company had no choice but to close down the Willows Main Stage facility.

Eric Inman and David Faustina spoke to me a couple of months ago about the 36 year history of the Willows Theater Company including its operation in the Concord shopping center location, and more importantly, the broad diversity of theater the company had been able to produce in that larger and more versatile venue. They both professed a strong desire to re-engage the City of Concord and the City of Martinez and the Willows Shopping Center in the process of re-opening that facility. These two young men, who represent a change in management for the Willows Theatrical Company, have come to this conclusion at a time when both cities and business enterprises are dealing with very difficult financial problems. Their desire to re-establish the Willows Concord Main Stage company has met with some justifiable skepticism by a number of people interested in the theater company’s welfare. However, now after a year of re-organizing, this new Willows management team is pulling out all stops to re-ignite the interest of their very loyal theater fan base, many of whom were greatly disappointed when the company had to close the main-stage theater in the Willows Shopping Center.

The Willows Theatre Company marked its return to Concord with a gala re-opening event this past Saturday featuring that exciting young Broadway star, David Burnham, who performed in concert, accompanied by his stellar piano accompanist, Mark Vogel. Burnham has won Big Apple acclaim for his starring roles in the musicals Wicked, A Light in the Piazza, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. His concert included many of the best known songs from these shows, including “As Long as You’re Mine” from Wicked and “Love to Me” from Piazza. David Burnham originated the role of Prince Fiyero in the Los Angeles workshop production of Wicked, then stepped into play that part on Broadway. He was Fabrizio in the Tony Award-winning musical, A Light in the Piazza, in both the San Francisco and New York productions.

Burnham’s performance was nothing less than brilliant in every respect. This young man is in my eyes is one of the most promising new super-stars on the entertainment horizon in this country today. He has an incredible voice that is sweet, romantic and at the same time very powerful. He knows how to deliver a show that makes everyone in the audience feel as though he is singing and performing for them, connecting with them personally. After his standing-ovation performance, he immediately met with fans and audience members in the theater foyer where he personally autographed his CD’s for them. Several ladies from Rossmoor voiced their approval and endorsement of this outstanding talented performer, practically in unison. One Rossmoor lady told me that she even traveled to New York to see him perform there, expressing her feeling that this very talented young man is one of the best you will see anywhere today. They all said they hoped he would be brought back for another show soon! We need to recognize and thank local entrepreneur Stephen Shore of the Esses Productions Company providing the connections that brought this fine young talent to this theater for this performance.

Gala festivities began first with a cocktail reception hosted by Willows Managing Director David Faustina, Artistic Director Eric Inman, and the Benefactors of The Willows Theatre Company. The opening ceremony included and lauded many local leaders and dignitaries who have worked in close harmony to help bring the Willows re-opening dream to a reality. Those dignitaries included Concord Mayor Laura Hoffmeister, Martinez Mayor Rob Schroeder, Concord City Manager Dan Keen, Martinez City Manager Phil Vince, and Concord Downtown Program Manager Florence Weiss. Maurice Delmer, who represented Assembly member Susan Bonilla, presented the Willows Theater with a certificate of congratulations. Other significant participants included Virginia Thomas of the Todos Santos Business Association, Lt. Robin Heineman of the Concord Police Department and Lia Bristol, who represented District 7, State Senator Mark De Salnier.

The next production to open in this wonderful theater will be the exciting Caribbean musical, “Once On This Island”, which will open on March 21st and run through April 17th. This captivating story is a modern re-incarnation of a little mermaid-like story about a peasant girl, Ti Moune, and a rich boy, Daniel Breauhomme, whom she saves from Pappa Ge, the Demon of Death. They fall in love, but because of their differences in social class and family responsibilities and commitment, it is an ill-fated, hopeless love.

Tickets may be obtained or you can subscribe to the new season offering or simply order individual tickets by calling (925) 798-1300 or by visiting the company’s web site at http://www.willowstheatre.org/. The Concord Willows Theatre is located at 1975 Diamond Blvd., in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord and the Willows Cabaret Theatre is located at 636 Ward Street in Martinez.