Twelfth Night, Play On, and Shakespeare in Detroit

On Friday night I drove 40 minutes east to Detroit and settled in for Shakespeare in Detroit's last production of 2018, and their final production until they move into their very exciting new permanent space in 2020.

As you might know, I've become a huge fan of Shakespeare in Detroit, now in its fifth season. Artistic Director Sam White is one of my personal Shakespeare heroes. You can read all about her and the amazing way she has developed Shakespeare in Detroit from nothing into an exciting fixture of the Detroit theatrical scene in this excellent Forbes article: Is Shakespeare the Key to Detroit's Recovery?

So, it goes without saying that I was very happy to be able to join them for their production of Twelfth Night... well, specifically a production of the Play On Shakespeare translation of Twelfth Night by Alison Carey. I've spent quite a lot of time with the Play On folks now, and saw a one-hour reading of the Play On translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year (again at Shakespeare in Detroit), but this was my first time seeing a full production of a Play On text. 

 In my seat for Shakespeare in Detroit’s  Twelfth Night  at the Detroit Opera House.

In my seat for Shakespeare in Detroit’s Twelfth Night at the Detroit Opera House.

It was an interesting experience. The Midsummer translation was, I would estimate, at least 80-90% Shakespeare's original text, with only a few lines, words, and jokes tweaked for modern sensibilities. The Twelfth Night, though, was much more extensively rewritten. As Twelfth Night is one of the plays I know very well, this was, on some level, extremely disorienting, and I missed many of my favorite lines when they arrived in altered forms. You know when someone wants to use the Star Wars theme music, but don't want to have to pay royalties to Disney or John Williams, so they end up with something that sounds LIKE the Star Wars theme music but is also definitely NOT the Star Wars theme music? It kind of felt like that at first. 

However, once I was able to relax into it, I began to enjoy myself. In particular, the translation highlighted how much of the original text I don't truly understand, particularly the humor surrounding the Sir Toby subplot. Intellectually, I know what a lot of Sir Toby's jokes and allusions mean, but knowing why something is funny is not the same as it actually being funny, so it was fun to see modern analogues of those jokes come to life in a much less forced way.

Again and again, my conclusion when it comes to the Play On texts is this: Are modern translations necessary in order to understand and enjoy Shakespeare's plays? Absolutely not. However, these translations, quite apart from being fascinating literary experiments in their own right, provide yet another valuable angle to unlocking the undeniable complexity of Shakespeare's text.

Like Manga Shakespeare, like my comics (I hope), like West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, like the Hogarth Shakespeare novel series, Play On's translations are another excellent tool in the toolbox of Shakespeare adaptation and exploration. They are not replacing Shakespeare's texts; they are augmenting them. And, if the enthusiastic reaction of the local students who were at the opening night of this production is any indication, they are definitely helping break down some of the barriers to accessing Shakespeare. 

The production itself was a joy, set in the Roaring Twenties with all the fun that entails. Having primarily seen partially-staged readings by Shakespeare in Detroit, it was wonderful to see a fully-realized production, complete with gorgeous sets and costumes. 

Asia Mark's Viola was delightful, nailing the woman's vulnerability and frustration as well as the boy's sauciness and charm. I enjoyed finally seeing an Orsino, played by Reg Flowers, who was as ridiculously and unapologetically melodramatic and self-indulgent as I always want my Orsinos to be, but seldom are. Maria (a wonderfully tart Vicki Morgan) got a well-deserved boost in this production by taking over Fabian's part, and thus not only masterminding but also executing Malvolio's downfall.

On another note, it was so exciting (and, unfortunately, still a novelty to me) to see a production of Shakespeare directed by a woman of color (JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Artistic Director of the Black Ops Theatre Company in Durham NC), with a cast that was comprised two-thirds of actors of color, none of whom felt compelled to shed their identities and act like cookie-cutter "classic" (a.k.a. white) Shakespeareans. This was a colorful production in many ways, and I hope to see many more like it in the future.

Support your local theatre companies, people. There's gold in them thar hills.

Tonight’s performance is sold out (!!!!) but if you’re in the SE Michigan area and want to catch the closing performance on Sunday, get your tickets now!