The theatre is dark. The stage lights come on and what I see is a motley bunch of performers at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Some with instruments, others not. They begin playing, each one kind of improvising their own tune. I’m not really sure if they’ve started or not. Then we hear the famous words, “If music be the food of …” “Love!” The audience cries out and the band responds in kind with a loud, brassy song.
It is only after several minutes that we are introduced to the principal cast of characters. Orsino, a Duke in love with the Countess Olivia, recruits the shipwrecked Violet to disguise herself as a man in order to convince the Countess to fall in love with him (the Duke). But instead, the Countess falls in love with Violet, and a cycle of jealousy begins.
It’s a twisted-up story and with the small cast size, the actors sometimes had to portray multiple characters, which did little to help my understanding. However, the performers themselves (members of Filter Theatre Company) were terrific, each person bringing their all to the stage and winning wild reactions from the crowd. The script took many liberties with Shakespeare’s writing, sometimes so much so that it made me wonder if they’d just decided to go unscripted.
Even the percussionist/keyboardist and sound effects person seemed to be having a good time. They made the show feel informal but authentic, something everyone could enjoy. At one point, they tossed foam balls to audience members with their arms outstretched. Later, they invited the crowd onstage to eat pizza, all while singing the chorus of “What is Love?” Like everybody else, I had no idea what was going on but I was happy to go along with it.
This is a play where the actors dress like they would on any given day and let their characters fill in the rest. Violet, for instance, borrowed a cap and leather jacket from a man in the audience and stuffed her socks into her pants, gender transformation complete!
When you hear lines like “a pox on these McDonald’s fries!” one of the many quotable lines by Sir Toby Belch (who was always drunk and stuffing his face with snacks), you can truly appreciate the joys of hearing Elizabethan English spoken in the modern day.
There is an extended scene where the evil Stewart, Malvolio, strips down to his shiny golden briefs and prances around the stage chanting, “MOAI,” believing he has won Olivia’s love. That’s just one of the play’s many big moments, and I’m glad I was there to witness the tomfoolery for the last night of its run.