Some shows are just silly, and that’s okay. I am not a fan of Twelfth Night. I directed it and I crossed it off my Shakespeare list. Maybe one day I will bring a stunning new turn to Olivia, but I guarantee that I will not be as electric as Ronke Adekoluejo in the Filter Theatre’s (in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company) recent production of Twelfth Night at ArtsEmerson. But I can say that I enjoyed this production more than any other Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare. This production takes the subtitle to ridiculous conclusions, and that’s perfectly all right with me. Never a purist and always up for a Shakespearean adventure, I took a trip to Illyria that I will not soon forget, thanks in large part to Director Sean Holme’s fearless direction and the strong ensemble and collaborative work of this rousing band of fools. Because, when even the lovers look like fools, you know that you have achieved Shakespearean madness, and that’s more than okay for me.
Twelfth Night is a Shakespeare comedy and feels like one of his most ensemble pieces. No story is more important than the others, and, instead, each piece fits beautifully together to create the revels of the holiday season. Off the coast of Illyria, a mysterious island, Viola and Sebastian, sister and brother (played by the stoic and pouty Amy Marchant, notably one of the weakest performances of the night), are separated by shipwreck and forced to explore the strange surroundings alone, believing that the other has perished. Here, Viola, our alleged heroine, disguises herself as a young page and pimps herself out to the love-sick Duke Orsino (played with rollicking and madcap humor by Harry Jardine, a spitfire of energy and a glorious emcee for the evening’s revels who also plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek). Orsino is in love with the grief-stricken Countess Olivia (played by Ronke Adekoluejo to astonishing effect with haughty and sensual sultriness and moodiness). A love triangle emerges as Viola (disguised as Cesario, a boy) falls in love with her master, Orsino, plies for Olivia’s love, who, mistaking Cesario’s gender, falls for the twinkish boy. Adekoluejo pulls the best performances from Marchant, and her efforts double in effect when placed next to Jardine.
The lovers are funny, but their power comes from their juxtaposition with the hilarious partiers: Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle and general merrier (played with commanding presence by Dan Poole); Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a buffoonish knight in love with Olivia (played by Jardine to ridiculous and rousing success); Maria, one of Olivia’s servants (played by the master of physical comedy Sandy Foster); and our favorite grumpy-pants, Malvolio (played one-part Mormon missionary, one-part Borat, all parts delight by Fergus O’Donnell). Together, their excitement and enthusiasm keeps the play moving in delightful directions. From shouting choruses to throwing balls at the actors, to a surprise dance party, these scenes create a fresh and free-spirited feel to Shakespeare’s comedy.
For once, we can see the effects of the party, as we look at the debris onstage; empty pizza boxes, spilled beers, multi-colored balls, and more litter the stage at the play’s conclusion. Throughout the play, we enjoy the quirky songs and sound effects, laughing at the use of a cell phone or radio to provide easy transitions and truncated characters. The blending of styles, with Poole’s Sir Toby Belch first appearing in Victorian garb and Jardine sporting high-tops, to O’Donnell’s Malvolio’s unforgettable yellow cross-gartered stockings, makes this play feel new, accessible, and awakened. Is the play high comedy? No, but when was it meant to be? You feel like you are a groundling in the twenty-first century; the only thing missing is encouragement to hashtag and tweet. Personally, I wanted a selfie with Adekoluejo and Jardine. Four hundred years later, we are still redefining and reshaping these classic stories, and finding new ways to experience Shakespeare. Filter Theatre has found the right rhythm to give us new access to the play’s fun and merriment. While I wish that some of the play’s gravity, particularly in Malvolio’s ending scenes, had emerged, the play’s condensed focus to ninety minutes means that sacrifices needed to be made. I think Shakespeare would be proud of the buffoonery and ludicrousness accomplished by these actors, expertly reined by Director Sean Holmes.