In “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” the late Jimmy Buffett noted, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” This observation seems particularly on point these tumultuous days. Which is why the light, lively, Caribbean-infused production of Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare goes down as easy as a 5 O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE® hurricane from the Margaritaville that lies conveniently close to the theater on Navy Pier.
Unlike Buffett, director Tyrone Phillips is a first-generation Jamaican American, so he’s well-positioned to create an authentic island vibe onstage. And he does, with help from an evocative set designed by Sydney Lynne and a warm-hearted, if tricksterish performance from Israel Erron Ford as Feste. But that authentic vibe extends only to a point that will be familiar and palatable to Stateside theater-goers whose experience of the Caribbean may consist of a cruise shore excursion or a week at an all-inclusive resort. In other words, you’ll hear lovely renditions of Bob Marley songs, but not much Jamaican patois in this reimagined version of Shakespeare’s Illyria.
And that’s just fine. Sometimes, and by sometimes I mean now, it’s okay not to be challenged as you settle into a comfortable seat and enjoy two hours of well-executed broad comedy.
Like The Comedy of Errors, also recently produced at Shakes, Twelfth Night is one of the Bard’s comedies of mistaken identity. After a real hurricane leaves them shipwrecked and separated, twins Viola (a delightful Jaeda LaVonne) and Sebastian (a winning Justen Ross) wash ashore on different beaches of Illyria, both thinking their sibling has died. Viola soon finds herself impersonating a man (Cesario) as she becomes the servant of Duke Orsino (a noble and ardent Yao Dogbe). He pines for Countess Olivia (a sharp-witted, brilliantly funny Christiana Clark) and sends Cesario to make his romantic case. Sebastian, meanwhile, is staying in the shadows with the Captain (a romantically stalwart Adam Poss) who rescued him, but who is in the duke’s bad books.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
Hitting the highest heights of that hijinkery is Paul Oakley Stovall, a Malvolio for the ages. Stern steward of the countess, Malvolio finds a love letter he mistakenly thinks was written by Olivia and intended for him. As a result, he really starts to let his freak flag fly. That’s him in the gartered yellow stockings above. Stovall’s portrayal is over the top (in the best way), but it rests on a bedrock of unhinged lunacy that elicited many deep laughs on opening night. This is an actor who knows how to go all-in with a winning hand.
It all adds up to an entertaining, life- and love-affirming couple of hours during which you may conclude, as Marley once put it, Everything’s gonna be alright. If not, well, you can always order another hurricane downstairs.
Twelfth Night runs through December 3 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren