An old friend of mine used to love to get my goat with this tongue-in-cheek phrase: “Shakespeare is like the Bible — you can make it mean whatever you want.” There are numerous problems with this goat-getting sentiment, but the primary issue implies that the language of Shakespeare is so arcane and dense that its meaning doesn’t matter anymore — anything one wants can be superimposed on top of it, and can thus become more important than the author’s intent.
I think this is why I was disappointed in Bristol Riverside Theater’s “What You Will,” an attempt to re-interpret “Twelfth Night” under the auspices of hip-hop culture. The idea itself is a fascinating one, but unfortunately the results of directors Keith Baker and Donald Byrd’s efforts too often come across as disjointed, inauthentic, and ultimately unfunny.
I will give them this: Shakespeare’s language and plot are by and large left intact. We’ve got two shipwrecked twins, a lovestruck duke, and a countess in mourning and her court of attendants — and we have the promised elements of breakdancing and urban theater. It goes awry, however, in the directors’ inability to fuse the plot of “Twelfth Night” with the flavorings of hip-hop. What we get is an occasional moment of breakdance (ably handled by Gabriel “KwikStep” Dionisio) that seemingly pops out of nowhere only to disappear just as quickly, or an ill-placed beat that erupts, without justification or inspiration, behind a character’s line reading. The effect ends up feeling awkward, as if we’re watching someone’s idea of what kids find “cool” as opposed to something that accurately fuses the elements of classical and urban theater.
This adaptation misses much of the humor in Shakespeare’s writing. Indeed, some of the heavy-handed and halfhearted “modern” elements seem to bog down the natural flow of the story. Malvolio (Carl Wallnau) discovers a forged love letter from Olivia as a series of text messages sent to his phone, and does so in such a way that leeches all comedy right out of the scene. If you ignore the beats and the moments of dance (fleeting as they are), you are left with what feels like a misreading of the play, nearly devoid of mirth and joy.
All of that said, there are moments that work. When Byrd and Baker commit to the mash-up, it works — Andrew and Viola’s duel in Act Three is reinterpreted as a dance battle that’s two parts “Beat It” and one part “Rocky,” and produces one of the evening’s few genuine laughs. Perhaps that’s why I feel let down by “What You Will” — with some real investment in the concept, there’s absolutely the potential for a novel evening of theater. Miriam Hyman’s Olivia is also excellent. She is both ferocious and totally committed to her wayward love affair with Cesario/Viola, which is a lot of fun to watch. Sadly, her very watchable presence seems lost in a sea of ambivalent moments.
BRT’s press materials promised “’Twelfth Night’ as you’ve never seen it before.” In the end, “What You Will” can’t decide if it’s hip-hop theater or if it’s a traditional linear telling of the story of “Twelfth Night.”
A concept like the one attempted here promises avenues into Shakespeare via contemporary artistry that could conceivably capture young people’s attention. The problem here, however, is that all of the urban elements are inserted in such a way that obfuscates the plot instead of clarifying it or providing a point of entry. We end up with an evening that comes across as unfinished in its half-baked integration of differing perspectives. — Jonathan Elliott
What You Will, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. www.brtstage.org. World premiere. $34 to $37. Through Sunday, March 1.