The setting: a hot summer day in the Italian Riviera of the Jazz Age. Bright, bold costumes and characters are all the rage, and the antics of mistaken identity and romantic rendezvous earn boisterous laughs from the audience.
But this isn’t some slapstick 1920s comedy. This is Shakespeare, 400 years in the making and set 300 years after his time.
“Twelfth Night,” this summer’s production from the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, is inherently musical and magical, says executive artistic director Sidonie Garrett. It’s the story of Viola, who disguises herself as a man, but falls in love with a duke who’s in love with a countess who’s in love with Viola. Got that? Garrett decided before auditions last December that the plot called for the bubbly way of life embodied in the Roaring ’20s.
“It’s a romantic comedy, and the music of the piece made me think about what I think of the ’20s: music exploding, the freedom of dance of the period,” she said. “I told my cast, we’ve got to feel like the whole story is aloft on champagne.”
“Twelfth Night” is the only Shakespeare play with music written into the original script. So the Shakespeare Festival hired a music director to put tunes to the Bard’s lyrics. But the Bard could never have imagined his lyrics would be set to ragtime and jazz.
“My thought was that these (characters) would be the jet-setters of the 1920s, people that are pretty hip with what’s going on,” said composer Greg Mackender, who drew inspiration from the Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter. “One thing that was really big in Europe at the time was that everyone was pretty crazy about the music coming over from America, with the jazz and Roaring ’20s atmosphere. It seemed a very natural fit.”
Mackender is part of the two-man live accompaniment for the show, playing the vibraphone, clarinet and several other instruments. He and a pianist sit in a visible balcony throughout the show, while characters in drop-waist dresses and houndstooth tweed cavort on stage below.
Mary Traylor, who has designed the festival’s costumes since 1995, said she’s not a big fan of taking a Shakespeare play out of its historical time period. But she thinks a “door-slammer” comedy fits well with the lighthearted vacation setting of the Italian Riviera.
She based the costumes — in royal blues, cinnamon reds and sunny tangerines — on photos and postcards of art deco posters from the south of France, where beachgoers laze, cocktails in hand, under umbrellas. Men wore suits most of the time — “ready for any social occasion,” Traylor said — and the male actors of the show don’t get a break in the heat, either, wearing ties and jackets as part of their costumes. But it’s all in good fun, especially in light of recent events, she said.
“All of a sudden, here we are with these bright colors,” Traylor said. “I think the audience will respond very well to the fun. It’s very important right now for us to sit back and enjoy and have fun — take a break from the somber nature of the world.”
“Twelfth Night” continues at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through July 3 at Southmoreland Park. See KCShakes.org.
▪ “Bullets Over Broadway,” June 28 through July 3 at Starlight Theatre. Woody Allen wrote this musical comedy based on his Oscar-nominated 1994 movie about a desperate young playwright who gets financial backing from a mobster. See KCStarlight.com.
▪ “Hurricane,” 8 p.m. June 26 at Musical Theatre Heritage in Crown Center. The musical follows five New Yorkers stuck inside their apartment during Hurricane Sandy. The show will be presented in a free concert-style reading. See musicaltheaterheritage.com to reserve seats.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_