The classic comedy by noted bard William Shakespeare was brought to new life at the Sontag Greek Theatre in Claremont. A presentation of the Midsummer Shakespeare Festival, TWELFTH NIGHT is back to celebrate “new normal” post-pandemic life. The current production gives new meaning to the word diverse. Shakespeare in a Greek amphitheater says it all. Then add a brilliantly diverse group of cast and crew who breathe new life into the century’s old story of romance and twinly confusion. Their youthful exuberance and enthusiasm everywhere evident, the troupe has reformulated the Shakespearean comedy and manages to get right into the spirit of the Bard’s message. After all, Shakespeare was written for the populace, largely a horde of uneducated and illiterate folks 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.
Ophelia’s Jump version of Shakespeare never forgets that comedy should create laughter – and it surely does create laughter even if main characters somehow become less central to the plot than a few peripheral characters. Obviously, the cast doesn’t consider Shakespeare something to be handled with kid gloves, reverence, and perfect obedience. This version is replete with sexual innuendos, sometimes in directions that Shakespeare never imagined. Slapstick and all, TWELFTH NIGHT strives for guffaws rather than gravity.
The play is about a set of twins, Viola (Janelle Kester) and Sebastian (Scott Robinson), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing that the other had died in the tempest. When they are thrown on the shores of Illyria, Viola decides that it is safer to masquerade as a boy and soon becomes a page to Duke Orsino (Marc Antonio Pritchett). But there are already romantic problems brewing. Viola finds herself drawn to the Duke, who is madly in love with wealthy Countess Olivia (Janette Valenzo) – but Olivia won’t give him the time of day. Since her father and brother recently died, her period of mourning offers the perfect foil to aspiring suiters. When the Duke orders his page Cesario (in reality the love-struck Viola) to ply his suit with the Countess, fur begins to fly. The Countess is suddenly smitten with the awkward youth, believing that he’s the man of her dreams. Into this pot-ready-to-boil-over enters the very-alive Sebastian, who in fact did survive the shipwreck with the help of his loving and faithful friend Antonio (Ryan Herrera).
Superimposed upon the bare bones of this silly but effective plot is the comedy relief provided by a typically inebriated Sir Toby Belch (Caitlin Lopez), Olivia’s uncle, and his circle of misfit friends. Bored and seeking some mischief, they decide to target Malvolio (Jenny Lockwood), Olivia’s retainer who is also hopelessly in love with his boss Olivia. Their antics throughout the show soon become important points of contact as they mince and plow through the storyline to afford lots of laughs for the audience, who soon become more involved in their machinations than in the twins’ problems. The star of the evening unexpectedly becomes one of Toby’s crazy colleagues Fabian (Ian Hartidge, pulled from Shakespeare’s original, where he was called Feste, the clown). This lanky black clownish companion wears splash, flash, and sequins with aplomb – and even gets the final bow.
Kudos to director Caitlin Lopez, a talented cast of totally nuts kids, and the production crew that put this potpourri together. If you’re interested in seeing a “different” version of Shakespeare – but one that probably typifies the spirit of his plays and why they were so popular in old England – then the Ophelia’s Jump production of TWELFTH NIGHT is definitely for you. This is an animated, passionate presentation, and the entire cast is on fire. Shakespeare would probably have enjoyed and highly approved of this version of his work.
TWELFTH NIGHT plays Thursday through Sundays at 8 p.m. It runs through 7/25/21 at the Sontag Greek Theatre on the campus of Pomona College, Claremont, CA 91711. Tickets are $25. For information and reservations, call 909-734-6565 or go online.