Resisting the temptation to cast all-male or all-female players in a play that often receives gender-bending casting, director Jon Tracy shakes up William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with an all-musical ensemble. Wielding banjos, guitars, washboards, accordions, violins, drums, and other instruments, the cast makes a name for itself — calling itself “Shakedown” — and turns The Bard's classic comedy into a spectacular opera of rock, bluegrass, and ballads.
Tracy has stamped his unusual footprint on Shotgun Players in the past (The Farm, Of the Earth, The Salt Plays, and others). Paired with set designer Nina Ball and bolstered by costume designer Christine Crook, the production emerges as a masterful display of minimal moments that echo largely. Half the production's fun comes from these small touches and how they represent things of greater consequence. A slide down a banister is a physical expression of sloth and the ecstatic afterglow of a first kiss. A prop — a stationary exercise bicycle — is a beloved horse, but also a metaphor for the actor's limited intelligence: Mounted, he pedals and ponders furiously, traveling nowhere. And spiritual dominion is suggested with a simple swirl of cloth, or the decadence of lust revealed, with sequin-spangled underpants.
The play follows expected Shakespearean twists. A shipwreck has separated twins Viola (Rebecca Pingree) and Sebastian (Will Hand), and Viola fears her brother is dead. Falling onto the Illyrian shores of Duke Orsino (Ben Euphrat), Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and is enlisted by the bare-chested nobleman (in a delightful getup of work boots, red pants, and audience-fabricated crown) to declare his (not her) love for the Countess Olivia (Ari Rampy). Olivia is grieving a lost father and brother and has refused Orsino's impassioned pleas for an audience. Cesario uncorks her heart; disastrously, she falls in love with the messenger, not the Duke. We know what she does not: She's in love with a man who is a woman.
Meanwhile, class warfare rages as Olivia's pickled-in-ale cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Billy Raphael), plots revenge on Olivia's snooty steward, Malvolio (Terry Rucker). Belch engages the slow-witted cyclist Aguecheek (Nick Medina) and a servant, Maria (Deborah Rucker), in a deception. Delivering a letter written by Maria to mimic Olivia's penmanship that declares the countess's love for her servant, the unlikely sod is elated — and destined for humiliation. Add the further romantic knots of Viola's discovery that she is infatuated with Orsino, the arrival of a belligerent buddy of Viola's lost twin, Antonia (Sarah Mitchell), and the glue-holding-all-the-pieces-together character, Feste (Jeremy Vik), and confusion reigns.
Except it doesn't, because deception is dirty work and “desire is death,” as the cast croons during Act I. Resonating with electrifying energy, the thickness of multiple mistaken identities never clouds the interactions. Precise and practiced in delivery, the actors lend fresh voice to the 420-year-old lines.
Perhaps setting Shakespeare to banjo, ukelele, and electric guitar does the trick. Or maybe it's the juxtaposition of hilarious scenes, in which Malvolio resembles Santa Claus in Big Bird yellow spandex tights, with the poignant scenes of Olivia, when she climbs a tower to perch, centered in a hanging frame as if she was a portrait, that are key to the production's powerful, offbeat expression. Regardless, the effect of a director who appears to create his own box — not just think outside of one — and a cast whose bodies and vocalizations sing, is unexpected, blissful theater.