Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is already something of a hall of funhouse mirrors, full of complex pranks, disguises and mistaken identities. Add in some gender-bending casting and speed the whole thing up, as Mu Performing Arts’ current production does, and the play becomes an out-and-out carnival.
In a nod to Mu’s mission as an Asian-American troupe, director Randy Reyes has situated the imaginary kingdom of Illyria on an Asian island. Thus Theresa Akers’ versatile multi-level set is adorned with glowing paper lanterns, while Stacey Palmer’s costumes and Jason Hansen’s music infuse the play with a distinctly Asian flavor.
These touches add a decorative interest to the proceedings, but what’s more innovative about Reyes’ take on the play is the casting. “Twelfth Night” revolves around the conceit of a woman disguised as a man — Viola decides to become Cesario after surviving a shipwreck. In this production three male characters are also played by women, adding a layer of complexity to the play’s sly commentary on the human condition.
Audrey Park cuts a comanding figure as the willful and autocratic Duke Orsino, lending the role a coiled and swaggering intensity that contrasts well with Francesca McKenzie’s languorously imperious Olivia. Stephanie Bertumen adds an element of spontaneous energy and spunk as the hapless Viola/Cesario caught in the middle of the barbed courtship being carried out by these two peers.
At the same time that this odd threesome’s story unfolds, another trio is wreaking havoc on the life of Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, played with starchy pomposity by Eric Sharp. Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, Alex Galick and Su-Yoon Ko as Olivia’s uncle, would-be suitor and maidservant, respectively, provide plenty of broad humor as they plot and connive. Sharp demonstrates marvelous range as Malvolio, transitioning skillfully from ludicrous comedy to dark poignancy over the course of the play. Meanwhile, Emma Valentine offers up perhaps the evening’s most over-the-top performance as a lisping pirate.
In addition to directing, Reyes is also onstage as Olivia’s fool Feste and seems to almost serve as impresario of this galloping 99-minute long circus. In between scenes where he breaks into song or provides bubble-bursting witticisms, he perches amongst the audience as a knowing observer of the festivities.
This fast paced and cleverly transformed version of “Twelfth Night” is highly accessible, with its complex plot stripped down to the essentials. While the breezy, full-on comedic approach sometimes gives short shrift to Shakespeare’s language as it verges into self-indulgence, it’s still a charmingly inventive production.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.