Warm Your Soul with Wonderfully Playful Caribbean ‘Twelfth Night’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

When you think of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, you think about one of the city’s top performing companies featuring the best talent in the region. The sets are always beautiful. The direction is always visionary. The actors are always divine. The words are always apropos and brilliant. The entire Chicago Shakespeare experience is absolute heaven.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is currently staging an imaginative and inspired production of Twelfth Night that is sure to be the talk of the city. Under the impeccable direction of Tyrone Phillips, the Chicago Shakes theatrical undertaking is calm, cool, and refreshing. You’ll laugh. You’ll ooh in amazement. And you’ll go home afterward a very happy camper.

Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602 as a part of programming for the Christmas holiday season. The title refers to the twelfth night after Christmas day. Written by William Shakespeare, the play is based on the Italian play Gl’ingannati, which translates to The Deceived Ones.

While Shakespeare may have borrowed heavily from the source material, the word choices for the prose are clearly his. Twelfth Night ranks as one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow and digest, making it one of his most popular works. Historians ranks it alongside Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of the famed playwright’s best comedies.

Like many Shakespeare comedies, the crux of the show hinges on mistaken identity. In this case, the play is about a pair of fraternal twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated at sea when their ship goes down. On her own, Viola disguises herself as a man and takes the moniker Cesario to serve as a steward to the Duke of the land she washes ashore on.

Duke Orsino is transfixed with the idea of marrying Countess Olivia – a strong woman who has never seen the need to marry. In order to gain her favor, the Duke sends his servant Cesario (Viola) to speak on his behalf and tout his virtues. Instead of inspiring the Countess to marry the Duke, the words of affection spoken by Cesario make the Countess have eyes for him (who is really a her). Meanwhile Viola finds herself strangely attracted to her employer, the Duke.

Throughout the action, a host of servants and neighbors add to the story – particularly in the form of comic relief. Eventually, Viola’s brother Sebastian arrives, at first being mistaken for Cesario, and then becoming intertwined in the ongoings in his own right.

For this production, the creative team has set the tale on a tropical island in the Caribbean. The director is of Jamaican descent, and although he indicates Jamacia played some influence in the setting, the play’s locale is a fictional island particular to the needs of Shakespeare’s plot.

Translating this to the audience is a lovely set design by Sydney Lynne, impressive projections by Mike Tutaj, expressive lighting design by Xavier Pierce, and vibrant costumes by Christine Pascual. Music director Robert Redderick makes his indelible mark as well, incorporating a host of tunes including Beatles music and reggae hits by Bob Marley that vividly add to the story.

The music isn’t just randomly inserted. It’s clear that the popular songs were selected for specific reasons and the choices are remarkable – as good as the song selections for a Quentin Tarantino or Baz Luhrmann movie soundtrack. Songs like “No Woman, No Cry” really add to the narrative of the play. The liberal but not overdone inclusion of music also provides the floor for several of the performers to display some spectacular musical skills.

Jeda LaVonne stars as Viola, and turns in an outstandingly good performance in her Chicago Shakespeare Theatre debut. She clearly shows a deep understanding of the text, and like many of the actors uses modern inflections to tweak the meaning of the dialogue to appeal to the hometown crowd.

The use of colloquial intonations of modern urban culture throughout the entire cast should widen the appeal of the play to more than just your typical Shakespeare fan. The director, creative staff, and cast truly make the comedy more widely accessible than your average classic interpretation. This funny, breezy, carnival is easy to follow and is filled with comic bits that will have you howling. It also features touching romantic moments and the underlying spirit of a beautiful island setting.

Joining LaVonne among the leading players is Yao Dogbe as the Duke of Illyria and Christina Clark as Countess Olivia. Dogbe has a playful, affable, king-of-the-hill charm that radiates from the stage. He simply glows with charisma. Clark, meanwhile, is a delight as a strong-willed woman filled with desire. She milks the emotions of the character with all the subtlety of a bull in a China shop.

Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch and his associate Sir Andrew Aguecheek provide hilarious interludes that couldn’t be funnier. Ronald L Conner and Alex Goodrich are absolutely hysterical as they imbibe and drop inhibitions beyond any level of respectability. Conner is a rock-solid performer and Goodrich is routinely one of the funniest comic actors I have ever experienced in all my travels.

You could not wish for a better actor than Paul Oakley Stovall as Malvolio – Countess Olivia’s steward who secretly pines for her affections. Despite following in the footsteps of such great actors as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Patrick Stewart to play Malvolio, Stovall owns the role. He is curt and off-putting when called for, but also comical enough to have the audience drowning in tears of laughter. Thanks to Phillips’ liberal incorporation of music into the play, Stovall gets to show off an astounding vocal presence, impressing even further an audience that he long ago wrapped around his finger.

Like a rose growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, Israel Erron Ford is an unexpected and beautiful gift in the role of Feste. Although described as Olivia’s fool, Ford’s version of Feste is an ambassador of love and music – sending thrills up the spine with his golden expressive voice and the magical twinkle in his eye.

Justen Ross, Roberto Mántica, and Adam Poss are all excellent in supporting roles. Truth be told, the entire cast turns in amazing performances in bringing Phillips’ vision to life. The cast also includes Naphtali Curry, Danielle Davis, Arielle Leverett, and Shelby Lynn Bias; and understudies Christian Andrews, Ernest Bentley, Shelby Lunn Bias, Cereyna J. Bougouneau, Blake Hamilton Currie, Donterrio, and Dylan J. Fleming.

Accentuating Reddrick’s sensational music direction is some excellent movement choreographed by Sadira Muhmmad. The music and movement combine to give the overall production the light airy feeling of a Caribbean breeze on a sunny day at the beach with a cocktail not too far out of reach. The creative staff also is well served by verse coach Kevin Gudahl, stage manager Jessica Forella, assistant stage manager Michael George, and casting by Bob Mason.

As the winter cold starts to settle in around Chicago, schedule a vacation of the senses for yourself: enjoy the spirit of the tropics with Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s wonderous, lovely, and spirited Twelfth Night. It’s Shakespeare with a Caribbean twist. It doesn’t get better than this!

Twelfth Night plays Wednesdays through Sundays. Evening performances are at 7:30 PM. Wednesday matinees are at 1 PM and Sunday matinees are at 2 PM. There are audio description performances, projected Spanish translation performances, open captioning performances, and ASL performances scheduled – information is available on the theater website. The theater is located at 800 East Grand Avenue at Chicago’s historic Navy Pier.

For tickets and further information call the box office at (312) 595-5600 or visit www.ChicagoShakes.com.

Production Photos credit: Liz Lauren

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area

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