Part jazz riff, part rave, Filter Theatre's "Twelfth Night" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts provides a frolicsome introduction to this amiably inventive British company known for its sound design and merry way with classics.
The loose-jointed production, which was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, is set up like a band rehearsal. Instruments and microphones are strewn about the undecorated stage. Audio equipment is spread out on a table. The house lights keep the audience always in sight. And the casually dressed, six-person cast looks like it's headed to the Troubadour after the show.
Music isn't only the food of love in Shakespeare's gender-bending comedy of mistaken identity — it's the helium that keeps Filter's delirious high jinks aloft.
When a character holds a microphone to his or her head, a secret soundtrack seeps out. Punch lines are accompanied by an old-fashioned drumroll. And Shakespeare's song "O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?" is moodily arranged to replace some of the melancholy lyricism that gets lost in the troupe's relentless horseplay.
Joining the actors onstage are musician Alan Pagan and composer-sound designer-musician Ross Hughes, who produce the encircling soundscape Hughes created with Tom Haines. The mélange of antic harmonies conjures the festive spirit of a drunken wedding reception in which pizza is served. (Pies are actually delivered and passed into the audience with napkins, though Tuesday's opening-night audience at the Wallis seemed reluctant to partake.)
This Filter production, under the direction of Sean Holmes, slims the play down to an intermission-less 90 minutes. Not all the comic capering is Shakespearean. A good deal of time is devoted to a game involving squishy balls that theatergoers get to throw at a Velcro hat. If the cast members weren't such spirited hosts, this Shakespeare party might grow tedious, but brevity is Filter's friend here.
Jonathan Broadbent, who greets the audience in the manner of a friendly pub proprietor, takes on the role of the lovesick Duke Orsino, who's desperate to win the heart of the lovely yet aloof Olivia (Francesca Zoutewelle), who's too busy mourning her brother to indulge the duke's romantic whims. Broadbent also plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the clumsy, half-witted chum of Sir Toby Belch (Oliver Dimsdale donning full Elizabethan regalia) in a production that willingly sacrifices dramatic common sense for merriment. (Shakespeare's comic confusion licenses Filter's springy approach.)
Shipwrecked Viola (Amy Marchant) borrows a man's jacket and hat after washing up on the beach in Illyria, where, in the guise of a male page named Cesario, she will serve as the duke's amorous go-between. The romantic mayhem between Olivia and Cesario is truncated to make room for the riotous subplot involving the gulling of Malvolio, Olivia's prissy steward whom Ferdy Roberts feverishly plays as a rock superstar trapped inside a fastidious despot.
"Twelfth Night," so popular, can be such a chore. Lighting rain-soaked firewood might be easier than reanimating some of the play's old comic business. Filter gives us Shakespeare without the drudgery. If the production grows fuzzy at points and lacks much in the way of poetic emotion, this modern take on a well-worn classic will nonetheless leave you smiling with its frisky clowning.
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Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday,2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.
Information: (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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