MEMO to all those high school alumni who thought reading Shakespeare was as confusing as a Rubik’s Cube and as dry as yesterday’s toast: The celebrated writer can groove.
And these days, The Bard’s has a beat that ranges from ragtime to rhythm and blues, from show tunes to soul—all thanks to Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, who created a catchy and energetic musical adaptation of 2016’s Twelfth Night.
And this musical complement, including a live band on stage, makes funky bridges to a new, clearer understanding of the Elizabethan English that has clouded the minds of many. So say the members of the Mill Race Theater Company, involved in the local company’s summer production of this classic tale of mistaken identity.
The romantic comedy, significantly trimmed to 90 minutes from its original two-and-a-half hour script, with nearly an hour of the show being contemporary music, is presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St. in Columbus. Director John Johnson, something of a long-time local apologist for Shakespeare among cautious readers, believes that people unaccustomed to the author’s manner might watch this show and almost wonder if they are pairing the powerful playwright with someone confused with others.
“I’m going to say it loud and clear,” Johnson said. “A lot of people hated Shakespeare. They remember reading Romeo and Juliet at school. And when they read it, they asked things like, “Is this supposed to be romantic?”
“…But when you see really great Shakespeare being performed and not just read, it suddenly comes very alive.”
In the production, set on the exotic island of Illyria, Duke Orsino (Daniel Kane) sends Viola (Emily Nolting), disguised as a man, whom he mistakes for a young man named Cesario, to court Olivia on his behalf. Orsino falls in love with Cesario. When the character finally turns out to be a woman in the last scene, it makes no difference to the Duke whether she is a man or a woman.
Indeed, therein lies much of the show’s message, one that the cast agrees seems so timely and necessary for today’s often contentious times. A concluding epilogue, “Eyes of Another,” performed by the cast, highlights the theme of people “walking in someone else’s shoes and the world will be a better place,” as Johnson put it.
Some of the texts include:
I had no idea, I had no idea what you were going through
I’ve only assumed, but I’ve assumed things that aren’t true
But I feel where you come from
Because now I was there too
And I see through someone else’s eyes.
Nolting loves the effect of the melody.
“It’s so very applicable to today — this idea of being really empathetic,” Nolting said.
She also has strong feelings about the average person’s ability to understand Shakespeare and this production. Her two children aged 7 and 8 learned the screenplay and music with her at home. And they know the show inside and out.
“Bless their hearts, they are immersed in it,” Nolting said.
The same goes for husband Albert Nolting, also part of the production with the stage band.
In addition to the musical addition, another feature of the presentation that deserves applause is the lyrical content, which is very reminiscent of Shakespeare. These include writer Taub’s clever line, “Oh, disguise—you’re the devil’s blessing.”
“The authors were very aware of Shakespeare’s syntax,” Johnson said. “Although it’s not a Shakespearean line, it certainly sounds like it.”
Budd found the dialogue easier than she had ever imagined.
“I was a little scared,” Budd said. “I’ve never done Shakespeare. I was kind of freaked out at first.
“…But if you should get lost in the story a little, the music will help you at all crucial moments.”
And she agrees with others that the final I-feel-you number is perhaps one of the most important.
“The show goes really really well into putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Budd said. “I know it’s a cliché, but the way the world is, I don’t know there’s a better time than now to repeat such a cliché.”