The Modern Bard

Ricky J. Martinez and Tara Vodihn bring Shakespeare into the psychedelic era

If plays were drinks, the New Theatre's Twelfth Night or As You Will would certainly be a New Age smoothie. Rafael de Acha and company have whipped up a colorful froth of a show that's a decided departure from their sober Othello, the first half of the company's two-play Shakespeare repertory. It isn't just the exuberance and style that make this Twelfth Night distinctive; this production makes a 180-degree turnaround in its interpretation of classical texts. The result is both a charming lightweight rendering of -- and an uncharacteristically bold approach to -- Shakespeare's original script.

The play's title may make little sense to today's audience, but in Shakespeare's time, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, January 5, was a celebration of merriment and good-natured misrule, a sort of mini Mardi Gras. Merriment and misrule are certainly at the heart of this story, which has to do with identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are shipwrecked on the coast of an imaginary country, Illyria. Viola makes it to shore believing Sebastian has drowned. She disguises herself as a boy to serve Illyria's Duke Orsino as a page and promptly falls in love with her new lord. Orsino, who is determined to win the flighty Countess Olivia, sends Viola, now called Cesario, to woo the reluctant lady. In so doing, Olivia falls in love with Cesario while Orsino begins to have unexpected longings for the "boy" himself.

To this confusion add Sebastian, who turns up in clothes identical to Viola's disguise. Meanwhile, Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch contrives to set Olivia up with his drunken pal, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and play some tricks on his nemesis, Malvolio, Olivia's puritanical steward. All the comedic high jinks and human foibles are fodder for Olivia's fool, Feste, here a blind musician playing a laptop synthesizer, whose jokes and songs comment wryly on the action that swirls around him.

De Acha has given this old tale a 1960s Pop Art, go-go look, a choice that's pleasing to the eye and a good fit for the story. The androgynous '60s styles and psychedelic sensibilities emphasize this dreamy topsy-turvy world of sexual confusion. Viola (Ursula Freundlich) and Sebastian (Odell Rivas) both wear long hair and bell-bottoms; Orsino (Carlos Orizondo) looks like James Coburn in the old Our Man Flint movies, with Nehru jackets, open shirt, and a peace symbol necklace; while Olivia (Deborah L. Sherman) primps and poses in hot pants and roller skates. All of this turns pretty much into a comedic romp, though I suspect some of the story might get lost for those unfamiliar with the plot. Like Othello, this is one of Shakespeare's "sea plays," but there's little sense of the sea in this production. Likewise, some of the locales and character relationships are rather vague. Malvolio, Olivia's steward, is dressed in a white linen suit, and when he first appears, it's not all that clear who or what he is. But the company clearly takes delight in this heady giddy atmosphere, and it's that enthusiasm that makes this show a success.

As Feste, James Samuel Randolph is exceptionally fine, with a detached droll comedic sense and a booming singing voice. Randolph's cool hipness is balanced by Ricky Martinez's hilarious Sir Andrew; Wayne E. Robinson Jr.'s ever-soused Sir Toby; Sherman's leggy pouting Olivia; Tara Vodihn's wily island minx Maria; Orizondo's langorous sinewy Orsino; and Stephen Neal's fussy prim Malvolio. Freundlich's Viola grounds the show with some melancholy and honesty. All handle the difficult language to good comedic and emotional effect. Costume designer Estela Vrancovich, who acquitted herself well with her Othello designs, tops herself with a riot of wild colors and patterns.

While the production concept and design are winsome, the most singular aspect of this Twelfth Night is the approach to textuality. There are two rival camps concerning adapting classic material. The first is the Masterpiece Theatre approach, a reverential conservative method that some deride as "literature with costumes." The epitome of this style in my view was Tim Carroll's Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre in London last year, an "original practices" production that stuck to the original production techniques -- all-male cast (with Mark Rylance as a phenomenal Olivia), no electric lights, no recorded music, no modern zippers or snaps. Far from gimmickry, the result was profoundly touching and funny, revealing the text in ways I had never seen.

The archenemy to this traditionalist approach is the revisionist camp, which views text in a broader sense, considering what a director and actors present as a kind of text in itself. In this view, the original script is a mere starting point that must always be reconceived and often rewritten to engage a contemporary audience. The New's Shakespeare Project has a go at both styles. The Othello is traditionalist, but this Twelfth Night is not. In this production, the actors come out when an unseen stage manager calls, sit around, grouse and banter as actors do, and the show starts with some non-Shakespearean jokes. Same goes for the start of the second part after the intermission. Though this effect doesn't play out in any major thematic way, it certainly loosens and lightens up the whole proceeding.

As for the original text, de Acha has not only rearranged and trimmed several scenes but he has completely eliminated half of the Malvolio subplot -- the darker disturbing part. The choice suits this production's sensibilities, but it's more than a cut -- it rewrites the play. Then again, even the title of this production has undergone a rewrite: Twelfth Night or As You Will. Last time I looked, Shakespeare's play was titled Twelfth Night or What You Will.

Still, perhaps the revisionist title is appropriate. This Twelfth Night scores better as a creative riff on the original rather than as a studious revival, and that, in my view, is a good thing. De Acha and the New Theatre have taken the scary and unusual step of "authoring" the text -- revising and adapting to suit their purposes. This suggests both a growing sense of confidence and a willingness to take risks, two virtues essential to a theater company that is quickly moving toward artistic maturity.

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