Twelfth Night Review – Shakespeare Travels to the South Pacific

Cast of TWELFTH NIGHT - Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko
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Written around 1601, William Shakespeare’s charming comedy of mistaken identities was probably planned as a Christmas entertainment since, in the Bard’s time, Twelfth Night was a special time when disorder was king and music, dance, and revelry were the coin of the realm. This classic Shakespearean comedy has been brought to new life by the Actors Co-op, who decided to make a few clever changes (no, Virginia, not to Shakespeare’s time-tested lines) to the play’s setting and ambiance. They have succeeded in harnessing the spirit of Shakespeare’s comic trot around Illyria without altering a single word of the play – but adding a level of colorful merriment that has probably not been seen since the Renaissance. This version of TWELFTH NIGHT abounds in costume, song, and dance in a strange kind-of unreal and utterly hilarious mixture of “South Pacific” and the Caribbean isles.

Britny Horton, Jessica Woehler, and William Viriato – Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko

TWELFTH NIGHT tells the tale of twins Viola (Mary Leeholland)  and Sebastian (u/s Freedom covering for Victor H. Rodriguez) shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Each believes that the other twin has died but also realizes that life goes on. Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man named Cesario and soon enters the service of Duke Orsino (Antwon Mason Jr.). As it turns out, Orsino is madly in love with the fair Olivia (Jessica Woehler) – who has vowed that she will remain in mourning for her father and brother for seven years. During those years, she will refuse all entertainment and will shun any proposals of love or marriage, even from Duke Orsino. In order to change her mind, Orsino sends Viola, now disguised as Cesario, to Olivia’s home to plead his cause. The unthinkable happens when Olivia finds herself drawn to the Duke’s emissary and finally declares her undying love for the awkward and embarrassed Cesario. What a pretty pickle for a young lady dressed as a man. To make matters worse, Viola has grown to love Orsino. This is a love triangle which simply can’t be untangled.

Antwon Mason and Mary Leeholland – Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko

To complicate matters further, it turns out that Sebastian is not dead and was rescued by sea captain Antonio (Ben Kientz), Orsino’s sworn enemy. The honorable captain cannot leave his young protégé in danger, and so he ventures into Illyria to keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, Olivia’s staff decide to play a pretty rough joke on Malvolio (William Viriato) , whom they see as a holier-then-thou pain-in-the-neck. Besides, he too is hopelessly inamored of Olivia. Soon Olivia’s perennially inebriated uncle Toby Belch (Isaac W. Jay) and unwanted suiter Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Howard Leder) ramp up the odds in this little debacle. It doesn’t take long for nobody to be sure who anybody is – which is exactly how Shakespeare planned it – whether in an ancient and exotic region of the Western Balkans or deep in the South Pacific.

Isaac Jay, Chloe Babbes, and Howard Leder – Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko

Beautifully directed by Michael T. Kachingwe, who knows his way around comedy, TWELFTH NIGHT soon evolves into a sidesplitting story of love, mistaken identities, and holiday hilarity. Kachingwe and the cast do a superb job of milking every possible laugh from the play, which is certainly what Shakespeare originally intended. After all, Shakespeare was writing for the populace, largely a horde of uneducated and illiterate folk who demanded that entertainment be entertaining. After pleasing the major players of the court – especially the Queen – the tale had to resonate with the standing-room only crowds who could make or break a play and a playwright. Obviously, the current cast doesn’t consider Shakespeare something to be handled with kid gloves, reverence, and perfect obedience. This version is replete with sexual innuendos and slapstick and strives for guffaws rather than gravity. By the way, listen carefully to the lyrics of the tunes, which are actually lines in the play set to original song.

Ben Kientz and Freedom – Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko

This is a wonderful Shakespearean production for Shakespeare “haters.” Far from the reverent – and often dry and even boring – presentations which audiences sometimes see, this is an entertaining, lively, energetic, uproarious, and very musical approach which has solidly preserved Shakespeare’s comic spirit. Thus, Actors Co-op’s TWELFTH NIGHT is a must-see for Shakespeare lovers – but also for those of you who may be indifferent to or even in dislike of all things Shakespeare. This is a production geared to changing your mind – and very quickly.

Kevin Shewey, Isaac Jay, William Viriato, and Howard Leder – Photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko

TWELFTH NIGHT runs through May 12, 2024, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Additional Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m. on 4/13 and 5/4. The Actors Co-op Theatre Company performs at the David Schall Theater, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood, CA 90028. TIckets are $35 (seniors $30, students/veterans $25, group rates available). For information and reservations, call 323-462-8460 or go online.


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