The poster and program cover for Charleston Stage’s Twelfth Night hints at mystery and danger. It shows a silhouetted man with a long cigar, its smoke wreathing into a dark blue sky. He tips the brim of his hat with the muzzle of his handgun. This unknown gangster has stepped out of some film noir fantasy, ready for a cold stint in a Dashiell Hammett nightscape.
In the actual show everything is played for laughs, from the major mistaken identity scenes to a minor appearance from a pair of Keystone Kops. For this production, director and company founder Julian Wiles has reset Shakespeare’s popular comedy in a Prohibition-era speakeasy, full of tough-talking hoods, flappers, and molls. The text is the same but the attitude is sassier.
Wiles and his cast get a big kick out of the update. Duke Orsino (played by Christopher M. Diaz) is now a Godfather. The woman he loves, Countess Olivia (Amber Mann), owns the gin joint. Her steward Malvolio (a hysterical Kyle W. Barnette) is a bartender and their fool Feste (James Lombardino) is a stand up comic and crooner. Audiences will enjoy the scenario too, as Wiles effectively translates Shakespeare’s humor by using slapstick and keeping his characters constantly in motion.
As The Duke pines for Olivia (“if music be the food of love…”), a gun battle erupts in a back alley. Sebastian (Justin Tyler Lewis) is shot, presumed dead. His twin sister Viola (Lindsey Lamb) disguises herself as a man and goes to work for the Duke. He uses her to send messages to Olivia and — alas and alack! — the Countess falls in love with Viola. Meanwhile, Olivia’s drunken uncle Toby Belch (Nat Jones) and bar maid Maria (Jan Gilbert) punk the gullible Malvolio to such an extent that he lands up in a straitjacket.
The show benefits from a strong, well-rehearsed cast. Most of the actors have a good grasp of the antiquated text, although some of Diaz’s lines are rushed or lacking in depth. We suspect this has as much to do with a directive to hurry the story along as it does with Diaz’s acting skills. Jones and Lamb have a particularly good idea of the play’s saucy subtext.
Apart from humor, the show also emphasizes imagery. Costume designer Barbara Young evokes the ’20s while giving all the main characters a distinct identity, decking out the Duke in a brilliant white suit and black shirt, Olivia in elegant gowns, and Malvolio in a golfing outfit complete with yellow stockings, cross-gartered. Wiles’ set also helps the jazz age vibe with a clever cutaway revealing the alley behind. Cannily, he uses the split set continuously so that there are no big pauses between scenes. Wiles also designs the lighting, making a good muted use of the color blue.
A lot is gained from the new setting, which creates a comic counterpiece to the 1955 gangster movie Joe Macbeth. But there’s something missing, too. All great comedies have elements of seriousness as well, so that we believe in the characters and truly care about them. In this version of Twelfth Night, a vein of melancholy goes unmined. There’s nary a hint of the bitter sadness of unrequited love in the Duke’s famous opening speech. It’s impossible to worry about the plight of the twins when they bound clownishly in and out of their scenes. And it’s hard to believe that Olivia would fall in love with Viola in her guise of the brash, abrasive Cesario.
Wiles and his cast are intelligent people. They must know that to create a powerful theatrical experience, they need their audience to feel dark emotions as well as light ones, to sympathize with the antagonists as well as cheering the good guys. This Twelfth Night is a funny, entertaining show, but it could be so much more, especially considering the talent involved.