GO SEE THIS SHOW! (Yes, I’m shouting!)
Forget that it’s “Shakespeare”! Tell yourself you’re going to see a modern comedy with crazy disguises, clever sight gags, and brilliant staging, because that’s what you’ll get. Yes, the lines are his, but delivered by an energetic young cast that makes sure you understand the meaning of every comic bit. One of the best Twelfth Night productions I’ve ever seen. It’s only running one more weekend, so hurry!
It’s at UH Mānoa but not at Kennedy Theatre, which is closed for renovations. It’s in the Campus Center Ballroom. I don’t know if the idea to use ballroom dance throughout the show came first, or if the director, Paul T. Mitri, was making a virtue of necessity, but the (mostly) 30’s big band sounds seemed absolutely right. Kudos to sound designer Mike Romney and sound coordinator Brian Shevelenko for a “record player” that provides quick reactions, at times becoming almost a cast member itself.
The audience is seated in the round, or square in this case, surrounding a raised platform, a large open gazebo, and a rolling ottoman. This open set means everything is visible from every seat, so imagination and “let’s pretend” take the place of a static realistic set. This allows for a lot of action, for the pranksters as well as the dancers. The gazebo has strategically placed mirrors for the vainest of characters to check to see that they are looking their best.
This play involves a common device of the Bard, that is, dressing a girl as a boy. You remember that in Shakespeare’s time, all female roles were taken by men (boys) as women were not allowed on stage. So that would give you a boy--playing a woman--dressing as a man. In this production, the idea is often reversed, with women taking male roles, to great effect. The gender-bending also gives some characters a chance to be somewhat appalled that they are being attracted to someone of the same sex.
If placing the action in the 1930s allows for big bands, it also echoes some elements of the musical Cabaret with its famous MC. In fact, when Rachael Uyeno, as the Fool, Feste, appears in top hat and tails at the outset, I half expected that great opening number, Willkommen. In addition to all her singing and especially dancing, Uyeno is also responsible (with Ike Webster) for the original songs and (with director Mitri) the fight choreography. Feste sings some fine Shakespearian songs, and turning the character into a nightclub entertainer is a modernization that extends and explores rather than subverts the Fool’s role in this play. It’s one of a number of shrewd directorial moves that will interest admirers of this fine romantic comedy.
Early in the show there is a great storm at sea and two shipwrecked teens are rescued separately. They are the twins, Viola and Sebastian. Each assumes the other has drowned and, though grieving, each has to make his/her way in the country where they have landed, Illyria.
Sebastian (Dylan Lee) is rescued by Christine Lamborn as Antonia (changed from Antonio in the original), and she is able to turn Antonio’s lines into a passionate, and unrequited, love for the rescuee. She is amazing.
Viola (Anna Hamaguchi) finds a job as envoi for Count Orsino (KoDee Martin) by calling herself Cesario and dressing as a boy. She is supposed to go woo the widowed countess Olivia (Emily Hoadley) on behalf of Orsino, but Olivia falls for “him” (Cesario) while Viola falls for Orsino, who can’t quite understand his attraction for Cesario (Viola). It’s not really that hard for the audience to understand in person! Sebastian and Viola are dressed alike in 3-piece business suits to add to the confusion, but it all gets sorted out. Costumes and hair, by Katie Patrick, are very important to the action and very well-conceived.
A subplot involves Olivia’s cousin, Sir Toby Belch, who is basically a drunkard living in her house and also living off his wealthy friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whom he has persuaded to woo Olivia. Jeff Brackett, as Sir Toby, and Malia Wessel, as Sir Andrew, are both hysterically funny in the characters they fully inhabit. Olivia’s maid Maria (Bronte Amoy, who transitions from a business-like grey suit to glamorous red evening gown) assists them in playing a pretty nasty trick on Olivia’s vain steward, Malvolio, played by Donovan Oakleaf in a stupendous performance, worth the price of admission all by himself. (And what an extension [high kick]!)
One of the many highlights in the play that has to be mentioned is also the work of the pranksters. Sir Toby and Maria persuade Cesario (who is really a girl) and Sir Andrew (who is really a dweeb) that each has been insulted and so a duel must ensue. These two unlikely duelists try to be brave and fail utterly and hysterically. The audience was in stitches.
One tiny cavil to the actors: when you are playing in the round, you always have your back turned to somebody. In this cavernous space, a little extra volume would be appreciated.
Still, the director, the artistic staff, and everybody in the cast can be very proud of their work on this production. This Renaissance comedy, in the hands of talented university students and staff, might have been written yesterday. I hope everybody in the audience called/texted all their friends today and said “Hie thee to UH Mānoa for a riotous entertainment.” Highest recommendation from this reviewer.