“Twelfth Night” is that Shakespeare comedy involving doubles, cross-dressing, twins separated by a shipwreck who think each other dead and wild shenanigans in an enchanted forest. Actually, about half the Bard’s comedies fit that description, so let’s be more specific. It’s the one that takes place in summer camp. Camp Ilyria, that is.
At least it does in Asolo Rep’s latest New Stages touring production—a performance hitting the road to assorted Florida high schools and performing-arts venues. Director Jen Wineman’s seriously condensed adaptation clocks in at less than an hour, which makes it more like “Sixth Night.” But it’s an intelligent distillation that keeps the bones of Shakespeare’s story intact. No surprise. Wineman pulled the same trick with last year’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As before, this is not high-church Shakespeare. The original text remains, if condensed to diamond-hard simplicity. But there’s new stuff, too.
Wineman farces up this Shakespearean romp with bits of business worthy of the classics — say, “Caddyshack” or the early "Three Stooges" features. There's an epic fist fight that turns into a girlish slap-fest, the strategic use of candy (a vast wedge of Toblerone standing in for a gold bar), an improbable parody of hip-hop dance moves, and, speaking of creative anachronism, out go the original madrigals, and in goes a weird mixtape veering (if mine ears dissemble not) from They Might Be Giants to Barry White. A blend of good stuff and the deliberately awful. You decide.
I could expand on my initial plot summary, but what’s the point? Cross-dressing, forest, twins — you get the picture. Let’s move on ...
To the gob-smackingly well-drawn characters of this play. Characters other writers have ripped off for hundreds of years. They come through loud and clear in Wineman’s adaptation. Just assume they all work in a summer camp (one improbably devoid of children) as counselors, cooks and athletic directors, and it all makes sense.
Viola (Kelsey Petersen) is unconvincingly disguised as a young guy named Cesario. Viola and Orsino (Kevin Barber) feel the thunderbolt of mutual attraction—which creeps Orsino out mightily, until the big reveal that he wasn’t actually attracted to a young man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as flirtation between Antonio (Chris Alexey Diaz) and Sebastian (Evan Reynolds White) makes clear.
To complicate matters, Olivia (Lisa Egan Woods) goes gaga for Cesario—triggering an attack response from Olivia’s rejected male suitor and his pals. They assume Cesario fights like a girl and try to put a hurt on “him.” When they attack Sebastian by mistake, Viola’s identical male twin opens up a jumbo can of whoop-ass. Andrew Aguecheek (Josh James) is the suitor in question. He’s a spoiled little rich boy—the camp riding instructor, judging by his ever-present riding crop.
James steals the show with hilarious physical comedy. Toby Belch (Mark Comer) is basically Falstaff without the weight problem. Feste the jester is a fool but no fool. Said madcap is played winningly by Ally Farzetta, with sexy shades of the Harley Quinn character. Joe Knispel slouches through the role of Fabian like a So-Cal surfer dude floating through the redwoods in a perpetual buzz. (Said happy hippy performs a marriage. He was probably ordained online).
Malvolio (Tom Harney) is a prig (a Puritan, originally) who can’t stand the thought that somebody, somewhere is having fun. Harney plays him as a camp counselor who goes on a power trip when handed a whistle. Instant Karma arrives in the form of a bogus love letter. This prank has Malvolio making a doomed love play to Olivia, a woman who hates him. He does so, dressed in yellow socks and grinning like an idiot while the pranksters, watching in hiding, laugh their socks off. Always a great scene. Greatly played here.
It’s all fun and games—with a pedagogic purpose, of course. Future actors will say “I want to play that.” Future scribblers will say, “I want to write like that.” Future performing arts fans might see a Shakespeare play or rent a Kenneth Branagh movie.
Big lessons aside, this is a great adaptation. But Shakespeare is so amazingly adaptable. You can set “The Tempest” on another planet, turn Richard III into a fascist dictator in a parallel-reality Britain, or plop Macbeth down in feudal Japan. Somehow, it still works. Universal stories work in any universe, after all.
OK. But a summer camp? What’s the point?
Well, getting high school students to get into Shakespeare, obviously. But this isn’t “Shakespeare for Dummies.” Or a substitute for the uncondensed original. It’s a doorway into the worlds of Shakespeare’s imagination. His mercurial language. His X-ray eyes that saw so deep into the human heart.
The point of the play? Shakespeare loved the messy tribe of humanity, drunks, lovers, liars, fools and all. He had to, or he wouldn’t have seen people so clearly. You can’t be a comic writer and hate people.
Malvolio would definitely suck as a playwright.
IF YOU GO
“Twelfth Night” runs Oct. 24 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 900 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota; Nov. 12 at Fogartyville, 525 Kumquat Court, Sarasota; Nov. 13 and 14 at Bishop Planetarium, 201 10th St W, Bradenton; Nov. 20 at The Glenridge Performing Arts Center, 7333 Scotland Way, Sarasota; Nov. 24, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org/education/new-stages-tour-2015 for more information.