Snow on Halloween in Chicago. Recall a serene Illyria with an island flair, a reggae-inflected tale of love and misfortune set perhaps among the driftwood and sands of Negril, or among the residents of Mo Bay’s Hip Strip. The audience reacted like cruise ship passengers finally arriving in Ocho Rios and feeling the sun.
Tyrone Phillips, the Jamaican-American director behind this strikingly emotional “Twelfth Night,” is an open-hearted and inclusive director, and, unsurprisingly, the warmth and optimism he wears on his sleeve attracts just such actors. I’ve admired Phillips’ work for years, but he’s never had a stage chance like this before, and to my knowledge, he’s never directed Shakespeare in this level of production.
So this delightful show is truly a triumph for him: Phillips keeps its running time short (only about two hours, with intermission), and the play’s extremely erudite and clear plot focuses on the central plot of twins lost and found at sea. on land, but also the themes of the play that interested him most, beginning and ending with the fragility of life.
There he enlists the help of Israel Erron Ford, who plays Feste and whom Phillips allows to stand both within and outside the Jamaican world, as William Shakespeare intended. Ford is a fine, soulful singer, and I don’t remember another “Twelfth Night” that gave a Feste such accessible resonance. Of course, that’s the key to the game; It constantly reminds us that we must live in the moment, seize opportunities for happiness, and understand that nothing lasts forever:
“What is love?” singing. “Not from now on. There is present laughter of present joy. It’s still unclear what will happen. There is no abundance in delay. Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth is an unbearable thing.”
Actually no, unfortunately.
I was told that Phillips was getting married before the last few rehearsals, and while it can’t be assumed that art imitates life, if ever there was a show that resembled the work of a very happy director and cast, this is it. And it is the most contagious.
Beyond Feste, “Twelfth Night” always has to be driven by Viola, aka Cesario’s (Jaeda LaVonne) determination to stay on the path to happiness with Olivia (Christiana Clark). Ditto for LaVonne, an actress who can channel Shakespearean poetry with energy and verve, while also assuming the right kind of air of naivety that makes Viola one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, an example of optimistic youth, a person struggling with the waves of life but never at a loss. Also valid for. An inveterate and enthusiastic improviser, he adapts his emotions and goals as new circumstances arise.
The Phillips show, which I saw after watching a different show with a heavy, intrusive concept, is also scaled just right. Some new directors in major theaters are using all the resources they can to silence humanity. But that’s not true here, and certainly not for Sydney Lynne’s luscious setting, full of warm pastels, rich landscapes and the kind of simplicity I’ve rarely seen in this theatre. Add in Christine Pascual’s exuberant costumes and Xavier Pierce’s lighting, and you’ve got a cute little affair that somehow shrinks the size of the Courtyard Theater and keeps the audience focused, even when projectionist Mike Tutaj makes it rain.
Which brings me to Paul Oakley Stovall’s Malvolio. Stovall was once a fixture in Chicago, but not so late as he worked for President Barack Obama and toured with “Hamilton.” How wonderful to see his work again: commanding with appropriate arrogance; extremely vulnerable, a Malvolio prerequisite; and finally self-aware. Reluctantly. But still.
Like Bob Marley’s music. I always think that “Twelfth Night” is actually a call for balance, albeit in favor of love. He understands loss and sadness, of course, and often the damage one person inflicts on another, but he resolves it in such a way that he seems to call each of us to recognize our own existence as brief travelers on land, often doomed. making decisions that do not take into account the brevity of our lives. You might call it a match for “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
I’ll finish with the assurances of some reviewers on this particular topic: You will follow the plot easily. You will smile. You won’t be bored. You’ll leave feeling warmer and perhaps even closer to the person in the next seat.
All this and Shakespeare too.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Twelfth Night” (4 stars)
When: Until November 26
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier
Working time: 2 hours
Tickets: $38-$92 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com