When I heard that director Tyrone Phillips (also artistic director of Hyde Park-based Definition Theatre) was moving Illyria to the Caribbean for his take on “Twelfth Night” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I was worried. Too many productions of the Bard’s plays have been sunk by overbearing conceits.
I needn’t have been concerned. Phillips, a first-generation Jamaican American, has picked a setting that not only works well, it also makes the comedy more accessible both to actors of color and to wider audiences. At the same time, he doesn’t sacrifice anything that’s essential to Shakespeare, though the evening is trimmed to a tidy two hours, The substitution of reggae and soul for Elizabethan songs is a boon, allowing Feste free reign with numbers like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “No Woman No Cry”and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
Feste, jester to the Countess Olivia (Christiana Clark), is beautifully played by Israel Erron Ford, who travels back and forth between her court and that of Duke Orsino (Yao Dogbe). He is pining away for love for her from his first words, “If music be the food of love, play on.” But Olivia is mourning the death of her brother and not seeing anyone, or so she says.
While Feste chides both for their behavior — more gently than in the original — he is the glue that holds the community together more than a mirror that reflects people’s follies.
This notion of inclusiveness is especially apparent in the treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s puritanical, pompous, self-righteous steward, perfectly personified by Paul Oakley Stovall. After he is tricked by Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (Ronald L. Conner) and waiting gentlewoman Maria (Danielle Davis) into presenting himself to his employer cross-gartered, in yellow stockings and smiling, she thinks he’s mad and remands him to Sir Toby, who locks him up in darkness and subjects him to various torments. When Malvolio is finally freed, he swears to be revenged on the pack of them. In the original play, he storms off, but here the torments are shortened a bit, Feste apologizes for his part in them and Malvolio is welcomed back into the community.
The main plot unfolds in a straightforward manner. Viola (Jaeda LaVonne) and her twin brother Sebastian (Justen Ross), who we don’t see until later, are shipwrecked on the island, and each thinks the other is dead. She disguises herself as the boy Cesario for safety and offers to serve Duke Orsino. He sends Cesario to court Olivia in his name. Olivia, initially disdainful, soon falls in love with Cesario, while Cesario, a.k.a. Viola, falls in love with Orsino but can’t reveal her true identity. Complications ensue, including a subplot involving Sir Toby goading easy-touch Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Alex Goodrich) into challenging Cesario to a duel.
The arrival of Sebastian eventually helps everything get straightened out. The strongest scenes feature Clark’s broadly played Olivia sparring with LaVonne’s understandably reluctant Cesario. The interaction between LaVonne and Dogbe’s Orsino is weaker, because they don’t have much chemistry. Oddly, one of the most intense relationships is shipwrecked sea caption Antonio’s (Adam Poss) loving attachment to Ross’s Sebastian, whose main emotion when he’s mistaken for Cesario is confusion.
Sydney Lynne’s scenic design, enhanced by Xavire Pierce’s lighting, is warm, sunny and welcoming, except during the storm created by Willow James’ sound design and Mike Tutaj’s projections, which are wonderful throughout. The music direction is by Robert Reddrick, and the choreography is by Sadira Muhammad.
This isn’t the best “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen, but it does get Chicago Shakespeare’s season off to a happy start. It’s also worth a look just for Ford’s Feste and Stovall’s Malvolio.
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