If music be the food of lively theater, Shotgun’s ‘Twelfth Night’ feeds a mouthful

Shotgun Players/Courtesy

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How does a theater revive a widely performed 400-year-old play from the most prolific and renown playwright of all time? With the artful genius of a Bay Area ensemble that specializes in said playwright’s work: Shakedown.

After losing their production backing, Shakedown’s musical reinvention of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” ran a successful Indiegogo campaign that eventually led them to a new home at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players. Under the direction of Shotgun veteran Jon Tracy, Shakedown reinvigorates “Twelfth Night” with an original and musically diverse score as well as aptly arranged songs collaged from lines in the play combined with extratextual lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets. In this tour-de-force production, the multi-talented Shakedown actors play every part, sing every song and make all the music.

Like the musical arrangements, the entire production is a work of art. As it opens, the play ushers the audience into the coastal land of Illyria, represented with Nina Ball’s set design of gray ocean waves abstractly painted on speckled fiberboard. The lighting is simple and creatively executed, abandoning traditional strobes for hanging ceiling lights interspersed between aluminum tin cans. The stage itself is a bare, raised platform with open areas on three sides where the actors play their instruments like a live band in the intimate theater.

As the play unfolds on their charming, understated set, a storm at sea separates twins Viola (Rebecca Pingree) and Sebastian (Will Hand), who both believe the other dead. Viola then disguises herself as a man named Cesario and works on behalf of Duke Orsino (Ben Euphrat), to win the heart of Countess Olivia (Ari Rampy). A gender-bending love triangle takes shape when Viola falls in love with Orsino, who still hopelessly pines after Olivia, who is thoroughly in love with the secretly female Cesario.

The fools of Olivia’s court serve the audience with colorful slapstick humor. Nick Medina’s goofy delivery of the rich Sir Aguecheek is purposefully over the top and the talk of the audience at intermission. With a vintage exercise bike as his steed and sequined disco underpants, Medina is one of the cast’s constant source of hilarity.

Among the comic pranks and rampant identity mixups, Pingree’s performance of Viola is the most grounded. She fills the role with the emotional breadth and realness it needs for Viola’s central placement in the story and carries every poignant moment organically. In the famous reunion scene with long-lost Sebastian, Pingree depicts the slow-building wonder that drives the big recognition moment.

Shotgun also builds on the story of “Twelfth Night” with a feat Shakespeare never accomplished himself: a kiss between Olivia and Cesario, mirrored perfectly in a later scene between Olivia and Sebastian. In the former, Olivia breaks from the kiss with a single belted note of elation. In the latter, Olivia and Sebastian break from their kiss in harmony. The woman-to-woman kiss is a bold, yet absolutely sensible, addition to this staple Shakespeare comedy.

Underneath the love drama, Shakedown’s impressive, one-of-a-kind music variety livens the Elizabethan dialogue that today’s audiences may find hard to follow. Mystical ocean sounds mixed with didgeridoo, washboard and seashell chimes accompany the sorrowful longing between Viola and Sebastian. A minimalistic hip-hop beat surprises as the most clownish fool characters chant about on stage. Creepy ocean harp and shrill screams reverberate in a hostage scene. And a fun, heavy rock and roll number closes the first act.

Shakedown’s theatrical ingenuity truly takes to heart “Twelfth Night’s” most famous line: “If music be the food of love, play on.” And put a “play” on, they do. Shotgun’s eclectic production serves a range of disparate sounds in a harmonious — and humorous — meal that will sate any audial appetite.

 

Contact Jennifer Wong at [email protected].