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Stage Review

Hijinks, but not enough heart, in ArtsEmerson’s ‘Twelfth Night’

Sandy Foster and Geoffrey Lumb in a previous production of “Twelfth Night.”Robert Day

Shakespeare’s plays are endlessly adaptable and virtually unkillable, having repeatedly proven that they can be broken apart and reassembled into an infinite variety of new shapes.

In “Sleep No More,’’ an eerie, brilliantly stylized adaptation of “Macbeth’’ by the British theater troupe Punchdrunk that was presented by American Repertory Theater in a Brookline school seven years ago, the tragedy was nearly shorn of what one would think of as an indispensable Shakespearean ingredient: the words.

After bringing a puppet-laden production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ by the Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company to Boston a couple of years ago, ArtsEmerson recently presented Benjamin Britten’s opera version of “Dream,’’ performed by the Isango Ensemble and set in a South African township. Another, much less successful take on “Dream’’ arrived in Somerville last year as part of “[Expletive] Shakespeare,’’ by Magnificent Bastard Productions, in which a member of the cast got progressively more inebriated as the show proceeded while the rest of the ensemble tried to carry on.

Plenty of verse is spoken by the cast and no one is drunk onstage as far as I know in “Twelfth Night,’’ a production by Filter Theatre in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company that is now at the Paramount Center Mainstage under the aegis of ArtsEmerson, directed by Sean Holmes. But the ensemble does cut loose in this rowdy, knockabout version of Shakespeare’s comedy, sharpened with a rock ‘n’ roll edge and loaded with slapstick clowning.


The production’s garage-band setting and overall vibe extend to the sharing (and, eventually, flinging) of pizza onstage. There are also numerous moments when the action spills into the aisles and even the seats of the Paramount. Indeed, the audience is pressed into service from the start, as an actor pretends to struggle with the play’s famous opening line: “If music . . . be the food of . . . .,’’ opening the door for spectators to holler “Love!’’


However, for all its raucous high spirits, pulsing musical interludes, and welcoming, good-natured atmosphere, this “Twelfth Night’’ is only fitfully entertaining and sporadically illuminating. Too often there’s a catch-all randomness to the hijinks, some of them amusing, some of them just self-indulgent.

There’s no question that “Twelfth Night’’ presents an inviting opportunity for theater artists. Mark Rylance, currently at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in “Nice Fish,’’ won the Tony Award two years ago for his performance in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of “Twelfth Night’’ on Broadway. The comedy was also produced on Boston Common in the summer of 2014 by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, starring Marianna Bassham. On Thursday, Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company announced the play will be included in its summer season.

In Filter Theatre’s production, Amy Marchant plays the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by a shipwreck. Believing her brother drowned, Viola disguises herself as a young man named Cesario and gains employment in the service of Orsino, the duke of Illyria, played with robust comic energy by Harry Jardine (who also doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek).

Orsino is in love, or thinks he is, with Olivia, a countess, portrayed by Ronke Adekoluejo. So the duke directs Cesario/Viola to act as his intermediary in wooing Olivia. But the countess rebuffs Orsino’s overtures-by-proxy, and instead becomes smitten with Cesario/Viola. Further complications ensue when Viola falls in love with her employer, Orsino.


And then of course there is Olivia’s pompous and overweening steward, Malvolio (Fergus O’Donnell). After he rebukes Olivia’s uncle, the delectably named Sir Toby Belch (Dan Poole), and others for excessive revelry (the aforementioned pizza binge), they retaliate with a vengeful and humiliating prank: Utilizing a forged letter, they persuade Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. This prompts the steward to strip to his skivvies and burst into a spasmodic dance, his delusional fantasies nicely augmented by Adekoluejo, who stands slightly upstage from O’Donnell and purrs into a microphone.

It’s a funny scene, and it’s not the only one in Filter Theatre’s “Twelfth Night.’’ But what’s largely lacking in this production is the lyricism that should undergird the play’s silliness, that element of poignancy arising from the quandary of love unrequited or misplaced, and, of course, the complicated business of being in love with love itself.


Play by William Shakespeare. Created by Filter Theatre. Directed by Sean Holmes. Music and sound by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes. Production by Filter Theatre in association with Royal Shakespeare Company. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

At Paramount Center Mainstage, Boston,

through Jan. 30. Tickets

$25-$65, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.