Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of What You Will at Bristol Riverside Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Much like today’s hip-hop artists, Shakespeare wrote his poetry for an urban audience. Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) looked to capitalize on this similarity in their current What You Will, a hip-hop rendering of the Bard’s comedy Twelfth Night. As Shakespeare’s most musical play (it begins with the line "if music be the food of love, play on!") I can understand the temptation that Co-directors Keith Baker and Donald Byrd felt when they conceived this project.

The stage certainly looked set more for a hip-hop concert than a theatre performance, with towers of speakers flanking a curtained recessed entrance at center stage, a disco ball hanging overhead, and a floor that lit up (a la Billy Jean and "Saturday Night Fever"). A DJ booth lords over the entire proscenium, complete with a laptop and turntables, and throughout the show players spun records and mixed beats while others recited verse. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting excites (especially in the club scenes) and Donald Byrd’s choreography and Justin Ellington’s original beats and music provide what’s no doubt the season’s best.

The cast saunters and sashays about with an urban swagger (Valerie Issembert’s hip-throwing would make Beyoncé proud), and they all look remarkable in Linda Bee Stockton’s costumes: designer suits, gorgeous pumps (on Olivia), matching sweatsuits, and sparkling green shoes (on Feste). When a storm shipwrecks Viola (Christin Sawyer Davis), she lands in front of a scrim where Gabriel "KwikStep" Dionisio breakdances and pops to a matching beat. "What country friend, is this" she asks, indeed.

With one notable exception, Baker and Byrd transplant Shakespeare’s verse and story wholesale into the "Club Twelfth Night" environment they’ve created. Knowing no one in Illyria, Viola exchanges her dress for a baggy white tee-shirt and hoodie, conceals herself as the boy Cesario, and finds employment with Orsino (RJ Foster). Before long, she’s playing pander in his romantic affairs, trying to woo Olivia (Miriam Hyman) in his stead, but thanks to the mistaken identities, Olivia falls for Cesario, who in turn falls for Orsino.

Thrown into the mix are Olivia’s cousin Toby Belch (Abe Goldfarb), the wench Maria (Issembert), and the priggish servant Malvolio (Carl Wallnau). Belch sips from a bottle of Hennessey while bumming money from the knave Aguecheek (John-Patrick Driscoll, here in stark contrast to the sharp looks the others cultivate, he dons a don’s tweed jacket and tie, looking like a lost sociologist in this Illyria). Aguecheek and Malvolio both want Olivia, and while Belch plays the former for his money, both he, Maria, and Aguecheek viciously plot against Malvolio.

Of course, they do it all in good fun, and any production can milk laughter from Shakespeare’s witty comedy. But while hip-hop often conveys a similar antagonizing, mocking humor, BRT’s production loses most of the jokes that Shakespeare stuffed into his script.

Through most of the production, I felt like I was watching Twelfth Night through a pair of glasses with a different lens over each eye, at times seeing (and hearing) the amazing production, at others, watching and laughing at a Shakespearian comedy. When Baker and Byrd left the actors alone to deliver their lines, they capably conveyed the humor (especially in Davis’ delivery). But a rubber chicken and having Maria suck a lollipop can’t supplant the wit and opportunities for pantomime and comedic turns in the script, and even Wallnau’s delicious approach to Malvolio (which I loved last summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival), couldn’t compete with the distracting background of electric violin and synthetic beats.

Similarly, when their production transformed Shakespeare’s verse into spoken word poetry, rap, or an R & B riff (delivered by Foster’s smooth baritone), the concept seemed so perfect that I felt amazed that I hadn’t heard of anyone attempting this before. And in those few instances where the hip-hop approach lined up with Shakespeare’s play, the production soared. Here, Trevor Vaughn (as Feste) rendered Shakespeare’s songs (written as such) with a gorgeous voice and styling that sounded like a hybrid of Justin Timberlake and Usher. (How did they audition this guy, ask him to sing R&B?)

Clearly, Baker and Byrd proved that the show can work with a hip-hop makeover, if only they had executed it solidly and capably throughout. With these actors, had BRT decided to do a straightforward staging of Twelfth Night, they would have succeeded admirably. Or if they had completely transformed Shakespeare’s script into a hip-hop musical (a la the highly successful rendering of Comedy of Errors in the rap production "Bombitty of Errors), they could have made something astonishing, breathtaking, and new.

But while their show possesses all the hip-hop accoutrements and attitude, it sells itself short on the lyrics (Shakespeare’s text). Robert and Steven Morris’s funny and enjoyable original song "What You Will" (the notable change I mentioned earlier), in which the entire cast burst onto the stage with fierce energy and rapped the beginnings of the story, showed what an amazing production this could have been.

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