The weather outside has been frightful, what with heat waves, humidity and sudden summer monsoons, making the prospect of a couple of hours of outdoor suburban Shakespeare seem less than delightful. For those who do make the midsummer journey out to the grounds of the west suburban Mayslake Forest Preserve, however, the high rewards are worth the risk in that the Bard’s best and funniest comedy has been given a brilliant re-imagining in the world of nineteenth-century British-occupied India. That poses a whole host of fascinating transpositions for “Twelfth Night,” of course, which director Michael Goldberg addresses so cleverly that those unfamiliar with the original text may think that he has changed the prose to suit this updated scenario. (He hasn’t.)
Here, the twins Viola and Sebastian are natives, and convincingly played as such by Minita Gandhi and Behzad Dabu, as are Orsino (Anish Jethmalani) and Antonio (Jonah Winston), right down to Indian accents. This gives a distinctive cadence, for instance, to such familiar lines as Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on,” and gives his wooing of the Countess Olivia (Melanie Keller), one of the occupiers, an entirely new level of meaning as there are now caste and race issues involved with their potential relationship. Indeed, a clash of classes surrounds both the occupiers and the occupiees and creates a new world of additional mix-ups and confusions. No wonder Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are so put out by Malvolio’s pomposity, for as played by Nick Sandys, he would be lower class back home but here, is telling knights of the realm how to behave. That also makes Malvolio a more rife target for thinking that he would have caught the eye of his mistress, an aristocrat.
The high jinks, the comedy, the costumes, even the fight scenes are done up so well, and the original Indo-ambient pop score by Henry Marsh—which even gives the cast a Bollywood-style curtain call—is intoxicating. So often updatings of Shakespeare suffer from distracting superimpositions of outside elements over the text that distract and take away as much as they might add, but not this time. This is the finest First Folio Shakespeare production seen since I have been covering the company and will significantly serve to up the Bard of future offerings. (Dennis Polkow)
Through August 8, First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street & Route 83, Oak Brook, (630)986-8067.