Shakespeare may be spinning in his tomb, but “Twelfth Night”, the Bard’s melancholy comedy of love thwarted and found, has never seemed stranger or more contemporary than it does at the Yale Repertory Theatre where an “Afrofuturist and Afropunk-inspired” version of the classic is currently on stage. With hip-hop and virtual reality at the ready, it’s safe to say this ain’t your daddy’s Shakespeare. But it’s also Yale Rep, so why should it be?
“Twelfth Night” is the story of shipwrecked Viola (Moses Ingram) who arrives in the “cosmopolitan port city” of Illyria and is soon working (disguised as a man) for Duke Orsino (William DeMeritt) whom she immediately fancies. The Duke, however, is pining for Olivia (a ravishing Tiffany Denise Hobbs) who, in turn, is mourning the loss of her brother but soon falls for Viola believing she’s a man. Shakespeare’s merry mix-up makes room for Olivia’s often inebriated Uncle, Sir Toby (Chivas Michael) and his clueless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) and lady friend Maria (Ilia Isorelys Paulino). The partying threesome are under the thumb of the preening Malvolio (Allen Gilmore, terrific), Olivia’s manservant who is secretly in love with her.
At Yale, director Carl Cofield, who has received praise for his adventurous Shakespeare adaptations at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, works in tandem with a crew of remarkable artists who put a distinctive spin on this classic comedy. It’s an adaptation that aggressively speaks to a new generation. The acting company includes several members of Yale’s MFA program which gives this “Twelfth Night” a youthful feel with energy to burn. In this regard, third-year MFA student Erron Crawford is a stand-out for his no-holds-barred take on the role of Feste, a clown in Olivia’s court who channels Stevie Wonder and gives Elizabethan ditties like “O Mistress Mine” an upbeat hip-hop flavor.
To be honest, however, the production does suffer from a lack of poetry, blurry diction by some of the younger cast members and a narrative that isn’t always clear. Still, it’s hard not to admire much of this unique “Twelfth Night” that includes Gilmore’s delicious playing of Malvolio as he attempts to smile or DeMeritt’s manly Orsino, one of the few actors I’ve seen in the role who actually makes romantic sense of the character. Also fine is Paulino’s robust Maria and Hobbs’ commanding, sexy Olivia who wears costumer Mika H. Eubanks’ spectacular designs with grand authority.
Towers of louvered wood lattice frame Riw Rakkulchon’s stately set which is magnificently lit by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan. Invaluable work from both Frederick Kennedy (composer and sound design) and Brittany Bland (projection design) make the show a visual and aural feast. All the design elements contribute to a rendering of “Twelfth Night” that might give purists pause, but leave little doubt as to the sheer amount of talent reflected on the Yale stage.
“Twelfth Night” continues at Yale Rep’s University Theatre in New Haven through April 6. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.