One might wonder whether Youngstown State University Associate Professor Matthew Mazuroski is brave, crazy or a little of both to rewrite William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" as a contemporary tale set in a world of celebrity worship and hip-hop culture.
In the theater world, Shakespeare's words often are considered sacred. While many directors get adventurous with the sets and costumes, they leave the text alone.
But the audience reaps the rewards of Mazuroski's daring. The updating is clever and parsing away some of the antiquated language does increase the clarity of the work. At the same time, the changes aren't that radical. Mazuroski preserves much of the rhythms and poetry of Shakespeare in a way that should satisfy all but the most rigid of the Bard's purists.
The basic story remains the same. Twins Viola and Sebastian wash ashore on an island following a shipwreck with each believing the other is dead. Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and blends in with the entourage of Orsino, in this version a wealthy hip-hop star. Orsino uses Cesario as his messenger to woo Olivia, a Hollywood starlet, but Viola/Cesario loves Orsino, and Olivia starts to fall for Orsino's messenger rather than the rapper. The arrival of Sebastian, who is mistaken for Cesario by everyone on the island, further complicates the romantic entanglements.
The pop culture references in Mazuroski's script add some laughs, starting with an inventively staged shipwreck scene accompanied by a snippet of the "Gilligan's Island" theme. Not all of it works (the expiration date on twerking jokes may have passed), but touches like having TMZ spreading some of the island gossip makes perfect sense in this contemporary setting.
Those who've seen "Twelfth Night" before will have an easier time suspending disbelief, but one challenge of the production is that Ashley Whited (Viola) and Ronald Aulet (Sebastian) look nothing alike. That everyone on stage confuses the two might be confusing for those in the audience. The two are costumed similarly, but identical costumes would have helped sell this plot point.
That said, Whited is very entertaining as Viola, whether she's pining for Orsino or trying to thwart Olivia's advances. And Natalie Martzial is a delight as Olivia, who cooly manipulates Orsino's affections and then must deal with the passion Cesario awakens in her.
For the show with a gender-bending plot, Mazuroski continues the theme by casting Zara Markman as Malvolio, Olivia's prudish steward who sheds his prim ways when he is tricked into believing that Olivia loves him. Markman turns the character into a wonderful foil for the misbehavior of the other characters.
Josh Fleming and Matthew Malloy play off of each other well as Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, respectively, and they milk their different physical types for comedic effect.
Ellen Jones' set design is simple but effective in evoking the island feel of the setting, and that feeling is echoed in Derrick Vanmeter's costumes.
And considering what it looks like outside, this trip to the islands couldn't be more appealing right now.
Youngstown State University Theater will stage "Twelfth Night" at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Bliss Hall's Spotlight Theater. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens, YSU faculty and staff, non-YSU students, Penguin Club members and YSU alumni. YSU students are admitted free with student ID.
For reservations or more information, call 330-941-3105.