Tara Kennedy, Chief Connecticut Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle/ATCA
Shakespeare fans: Hold on to your ruffled collars because this version of “Twelfth Night” is unlike any you’ve seen before – and it’s marvelous. Illyria has been reimagined by director Carl Cofield as Wakanda where George Clinton, Sun-Ra, and T’Challa decided to produce this Shakespeare classic of mixed-up gender identity. If that sounds out of the ordinary, that’s because it is, and I loved every minute of it.
Here, music is a central game changer. Gone is the standard-issue, minstrel-with-a-guitar version of “O Mistress Mine,” replaced with a rendition by Feste (a cool, far-out Erron Crawford) of the Bard’s verse involving techno beats and Auto-Tune. The open speech by Orsino (a sensual and dashing William DeMeritt) is turned into a high-energy dance number (thanks to Byron Easley’s slick choreography) with neon and blacklight with the rhythmic lyrics, “If music be the food of love, play on!” I could not help but tap my feet to the beats.
Another wonderful element of this production is how Shakespeare’s vernacular is enhanced by the cast’s ability to modernize it through body language, intonation, and movement. Contemporary stage actions make it easy to understand what’s going on in a scene, which means it is perfect for younger audiences. This hipper rendition of the 17th century play has an infectious energy that’s hard to resist.
The performances are wonderful in this production – not a slacker in the bunch – but I’d like to give high marks to Moses Ingram as Viola/Cesario. She is earnest and charming, especially in her revelation of her feelings for Orsino. Allen Gilmore’s Malvolio was perfectly pompous and killed it with his attempts to smile for his beloved mistress. Maria is one of my favorite Shakespeare characters and Ilia Isorely̕s Paulino gives some of the best (and bawdiest) line deliveries I’ve seen of that character. She is a delightful pair with Chivas Michael’s delightfully inebriated Sir Toby.
The costumes are colorful and quirky, thanks to the futuristic design of Mika H. Eubanks. Olivia’s costumes alone are downright gorgeous showstoppers, displayed with glorious carriage by Tiffany Denise Hobbs. Scenic design by Riw Rakkulchon has a Scandinavian feel, made up of soft wood in sloping, curved shapes. Lighting design by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan created beautiful silhouettes against the lit backdrop as Olivia and her entourage made their entrance. Frederick Kennedy’s musical compositions make this version of “Twelfth Night” vibrant and inventive.
All in all, I found this production of “Twelfth Night” to be one of my favorite Shakespeare experiences to date, and I encourage you to check this lively and distinctive show for yourself. It just might alter your expectations for Shakespeare in the best way possible.
“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York Street in New Haven, CT. Run time: approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Runs March 15–April 06, 2019. Directed by Carl Cofield. Featuring in alphabetical order Abubakr Ali as Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Erron Crawford as Feste; William DeMeritt as Orsino; Denzel Fields as Ensemble; Allen Gilmore as Malvolio; Tiffany Denise Hobbs as Olivia; Moses Ingram as Viola; Wesley T. Jones as Ensemble; Manu Kumasi as Antonio; Chivas Michael as Sir Toby; Ilia Isorely̕s Paulino as Maria; Stephon Pettway as Ensemble; Jakeem Dante Powell as Sebastian; Raffeal A. Sears as Ensemble, Fabian; Malenky Welsh as Ensemble; and Brit West as Ensemble.