Sean Graney's bouncy new adaptation of Twelfth Night draws elements from Shakespeare's own likely sources (Barnabe Riche's Apolonius and Silla and the anonymous Italian comedy Gl'Ingannati), and much of the text here is clearly the invention of Graney and his cast. But the Bard's opening line remains intact: "If music be the food of love, play on." And the music here is pure boom-box pop, 1980s vintage.
The lovelorn Duke (Jeff Trainor) sends his missives to the lady Olivia (Christine Stulik) as painstakingly crafted mixtapes of songs like the Bangles' "Eternal Flame" and Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," while Olivia's "addiction to melancholy" is represented by The Cure's "Pictures of You." The soundtrack is among many clever touches placing Illyria in a Lite-Brite colored, legwarmered limbo.
Like Graney's 2012 spin on Romeo Juliet, 12 Nights was created for and with the ensemble of four actors, who also collectively designed the production. They've painted the walls of the Chopin Theatre's basement in rainbow stripes, calling to mind an ’80s roller rink; the playing area, carpeted in Astroturf, is lined with jewel-toned lawn chairs. (Audience seating is limited, but there's plenty of standing room behind the chairs.)
Leaving design to the cast results in some inevitable limitations: the actors are neither trained lighting designers nor electricians, so the space is illuminated entirely in practical instruments that stay at full strength throughout. Yet the ensemble embraces this environment, tossing out the fourth wall and adroitly including the audience in the proceedings. We're quickly made to understand the production's physical language: When an actor takes a seat, she's "offstage," and when she stands again she's likely switched to another character.
The piece takes great advantage of this doubling and tripling in a comedy of love disguised. It's only natural in one sense for the same actor (Zeke Sulkes) to play separated twins Sebastian and Viola, the latter of whom disguises herself as a boy, Cesario. But Sulkes smartly takes a moment to let any initial confusion about a man playing a woman playing a man pass: "Get used to it," he tells us. Tien Doman plays both the joy-killing Malvolio and the fun-loving Lady Maria, with Stulik doubling as Olivia's bumbling suitor with a perfectly indeterminable European accent. Trainor meanwhile places his voice for Sir Toby Belch somewhere between Here Comes Honey Boo Boo's Mama June and Will Ferrell's Harry Caray.
In just over an hour, Graney and his cast encapsulate the spirit of Shakespeare's comedy while savoring the opportunity to poke fun at its more ridiculous leaps. (Why does Sebastian agree to wed Olivia, a stranger to him who's mistaken him for Cesario? As Sulkes has previously established, Sebastian and his sister are both "really into marriage.") It's a nimble, delightfully goofy evening that had me laughing more than any show in recent memory; as an aperitif for the fall theater season, it feels like the perfect mix.