I’m weary of gimmicky Shakespeare. Don’t do “Hamlet” in space. No to “Romeo and Juliet” as cowboys. It’s fine to go beyond the Elizabethan era in costumes and sets, but not okay to let the gimmick overwhelm the text. Can we just do the play, already?
So when I heard that Chicago Shakespeare was doing “Twelfth Night” in the Caribbean, I worried. How far off the rails will this go?
The answer is a happy relief. This new production of “Twelfth Night,” directed by first-generation Jamaican American director Tyrone Phillips with a mostly Black cast and reggae music, captures the spirit, the language, the zany humor and the pure joy of the play. The Caribbean scenario makes sense—after all, it’s a play that starts with a shipwreck. The reimagining doesn’t detract from the play but enhances it—like an antique diamond in a beautiful new setting. If you’re familiar with “Twelfth Night,” it will seem fresh again, and if you’re new to it, you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life.
The plot follows a twin brother and sister, whose boat is caught in a storm. They get to shore but are separated, and each assumes the other is dead. Viola (Jaeda LaVonne) dresses as a boy to protect herself in a strange land. She goes to the court of Duke Orsino (a flamboyant Yao Dogbe) and offers herself as a page. Orsino is hopelessly in love with Olivia (Christiana Clark), a countess in mourning for a lost brother. Orsino sends his page to Olivia to plead for him. Of course, Olivia falls for Viola, and Viola for Orsino.
This is a comedy, so Feste (the amazing Israel Erron Ford) sings “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” But the course of true love is strewn with farce. Olivia has a scheming uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Ronald Conner), living off an idiot nobleman, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Alex Goodrich, playing the role as a colonial Bertie Wooster). These two are perpetually drunk and hilarious, especially when dressed in feathered carnival costumes by Christine Pascual.
Olivia also has a proud, puritanical servant named Malvolio (Paul Oakley Stovall), deeply suspicious of anyone having fun. Toby, Andrew and maid Maria (the lively Danielle Davis) play an elaborate trick on Malvolio, to comic result.
This is a talented cast, who mostly play their roles big and bold, matching Pascual’s costumes and Sydney Lynne’s bright, tropical set. As Olivia, Clark makes the role broadly comic, and it works. She goes from mourning to lust on a dime and has wonderful tall girl/short guy chemistry with Justen Ross’ fiery Sebastian. We also see a touching, unrequited passion for Sebastian from Adam Poss as Antonio.
Stovall is incredible as Malvolio—winning big laughs with every arched eyebrow and prideful sneer. The cross-garter scene brought the house down. This is a tricky role—Malvolio’s a guy you want to hate, yet you pity him when the joke goes too far. This contradiction is handled beautifully when Malvolio is in prison, illuminated by Xavier Pierce with a single spotlight to show his misery and isolation.
As Viola, LaVonne is spunky and appealing, with a touch of melancholy, and she’s good in the verbally acrobatic wooing scenes with Olivia. She’s less successful in her scenes with Orsino—she and Dogbe lack chemistry. They seem most connected when dancing to one of Feste’s songs—then the relationship makes sense.
“Twelfth Night” is a very musical play—Orsino’s famous first line is “If music be the food of love, play on”—and there’s a lot of good music in this production, with reggae and soul substituting for Elizabethan songs to splendid effect. As Feste, Ford does gorgeous work with “Try a Little Tenderness” and “No Woman No Cry.”
“Twelfth Night” only runs until November 26, so go while you can. In a time of international sorrow and chilly autumnal darkness, this warm and sunny production is like a vacation. It’s good for the soul.
“Twelfth Night” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand on Navy Pier, chicagoshakes.com. Through December 3.