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Shakespeare lives in the Roaring Twenties

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The Great Gatsby meets the Bard of Avon as the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company updates the comedy "Twelfth Night" to the Roaring Twenties.

Directory Jeremy Dubin said he hit on the idea over the summer while reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of a man who re-invents himself so that he can work his way into the upper reaches of society.

"I was struck by the similarities between the characters," he said, "and of what comes out of trying to change your fundamental nature.

"And I felt that the scenes with the clowns Toby Belch and Feste have a vaudeville flavor that would work nicely in this kind of format."

The official synopsis:

After a shipwreck, Viola (Sara Clark) finds herself separated from her twin brother Sebastian and alone in the city of Illyria. Bereft at the loss of her brother and forced to make her own way in the world, she disguises herself as a man, "Cesario," and takes a job in the court of Duke Orsino (Rob Jansen). Orsino is hopelessly in love with the Lady Olivia (Kelly Mengelkoch), who has refused all of his previous advances. When Orsino sends "Cesario" to Olivia to plead his case one more time, Olivia falls instantly in love with "Cesario". Meanwhile, Viola has fallen in love with Orsino, but cannot express her desires without revealing her true identity. The classic love triangle becomes further complicated when Viola's twin brother, Sebastian (Kristopher Stoker), arrives in Illyria and is mistaken for "Cesario." As the romance unfolds, Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Matt Johnson), conspires with Olivia's servants Maria (Sherman Fracher), Feste (Christopher Guthrie) and Fabian (Billy Chace) to play a practical joke on Olivia's stuffy butler, Malvolio (Jim Hopkins).

"'Twelfth Night' has so many story elements that resonate with the Roaring Twenties," Dubin said. "Women were becoming more independent, dressing in a more masculine fashion, and taking work outside the home, just as Viola is forced to do.

"Prohibition created a black market in bootleg alcohol that led to a lot of outrageous behavior, a perfect opportunity for Shakespeare's drunken rascal Sir Toby Belch to make mischief. And the birth of jazz created a free-wheeling atmosphere where the desire for true love was often at odds with the social mandate to be the life of the party."

While it's become common practice to put Shakespeare's stories in more contemporary environments, Dubin points out that it seems Shakespeare did the same thing in his day, with plays like "Julius Caesar" making topical references to things that Caesar would not have known about — a striking clock, for instance.

"He worked within a certain visual vocabulary, using his contemporary references to place a character's social status to make it relatable to his audience," he said. "We have our visual vocabulary, too, and these plays are not museum pieces, but relevant, living theater."

The danger, then, comes when the production distracts from the script, to become cute or irrelevant to the action.

"It's a trial and error process," Dubin said. "We're careful not to force things into the text that aren't there. You want to make sure that you don't make it something it's not."

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how to go
WHAT: "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 719 Race St., Cincinnati
WHEN: Through Jan. 4
COST: $26 adults; $22 seniors; $20 students
MORE INFO: (513) 381-2273; www.cincyshakes.com

photo: Rob Jansen and Sara Clark


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