A Raucous and Lively “Twelfth Night” (3.5 stars)

By Michele Markarian

‘Twelfth Night’ – Written by William Shakespeare; Created by Filter Theatre; Directed by Sean Holmes. Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage at the Emerson/Paramount Mainstage, 555 Washington Street, Boston through January 30.

The stage is bare, except for some musicians, sound boards, and microphones. The fearless and charismatic Harry Jardine, playing both Orsino and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, takes center stage and urges the audience to fill in the missing word – “If music be the food of…” (half of the audience got it wrong). Sir Toby Belch – the excellent Dan Poole – stumbles in the background, the only actor in period costume, quoting lines from other Shakespeare plays. Viola, beautifully played by Amy Marchant, asks the audience if she could borrow a men’s hat and jacket in order to disguise herself as a man (several members complied). The somewhat menacing score rises and falls and rises again. Thus begins ‘Twelfth Night’, staged by the UK’s creative, high-energy group, Filter Theatre, in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

‘Twelfth Night’ is a comedy of misplaced identity and affection, the twelfth night referring to the twelfth night after Christmas, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. This was a day of Bacchanalian proportions – drunkenness, cross dressing, and identity-swapping between masters and servants, and the spirit of this production is gleeful in the recreation of these elements. During one revel, audience members are tossed foam balls and encouraged to toss them back in a game of “hitting the hat”. Five boxes of pizza are delivered from the back of the house – “Pizza!” cries Harry Jardine happily, before taking a slice and then passing the boxes to the audience to help themselves.  The steward Malvolio – the daring and hilarious Fergus O’Donnell – stops the revelry, in a stern and dignified manner.

Every member of Filter Theatre’s cast is a standout. Sandy Foster brings a punk edge to both Feste and the servant Maria – her strong vocals drive the show forward. Musicians Alan Pagan and Fred Thomas are terrific, even lending vocals when needed. Tom Haines and Ross Hughes are responsible for the haunting music and sound; the songs will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

While I loved the high energy and innovation of the chaos surrounding the story, the story feels like an afterthought, and I missed it. Some lines are delivered through a static-filled radio, others a cellphone. While this was certainly creative, one does miss the beauty and flow of the language. Towards the end of the ninety minutes the plot sort of gets back on track, and Olivia – the multi-faceted Ronke Adekoluejo – brings a lovely lyricism to the words, as was intended. For me, it was a matter of expectation – the play is marketed, after all, as “Twelfth Night”.  If it were branded as “A Loose Interpretation of Twelfth Night” I might have relaxed a little. That said, my husband loved it, and is planning on seeing it again. Maybe you will, too. For more info, go to: https://artsemerson.org/Online/