Francesca Fernandez McKenzie in “Twelfth Night” (Don Ipock)
Remounting a 400-year-old classic play is always a tricky undertaking, as companies have to walk the fine line of making a production their own and offering audiences something original enough to be worth coming out for, while still remaining true to the material. With their latest production of Shakespeare’s beloved and oft-produced “Twelfth Night,” KC Rep manages to navigate these lines expertly, putting up a show that feels solidly classic while also wholly original.
Director Nelson T. Eusebio III sets the show in the modern era, but with a light touch, not weighed down by theme or gimmick. Rana Esfandiary’s gorgeous set is gold-gilded art-deco grandeur, evocative of a sort of 1980s style of outdated opulence that fits the scene perfectly. That rotating set is perhaps the true star of this show, as it somehow manages to keep finding new, truly transportive angles at which to settle throughout. The frequent movement of the set—aided by the interludes of original music led by Jojo Gonzalez’s Feste—helps drive things along at a swift pace.
Eusebio’s cast is solid across the board. Jimmy Kieffer’s Sir Toby, assisted by Sam Cordes’ Andrew Aguecheek, are hilarious standouts and Vanessa Severo is a commanding Olivia. (Decking the wealthy countess in a head-to-toe sweatsuit is a charming modern take on her state of perpetual mourning.) Manon Halliburton is sublime as a gender-swapped Malvolia, capturing the oppressively unpleasant disposition of Olivia’s morose steward before flipping on a dime to embrace the character’s over-the-top ridiculous turn in the second half.
The relationship between Viola and Orsino is arguably one of Shakespeare’s flimsiest primary romances. Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and Brandon Jones give strong performances and there are some captivating creative decisions made in the depiction of their gender-flipped mistaken-identity dynamic, but ultimately, this ostensible A-plot falls into the shadows of so many totally enthralling supporting characters.
Eusebio makes some exceptionally compelling decisions that take this classic comedy in fascinating directions, especially when it comes to the play’s already complex themes around gender and sexuality. (It should be noted that KC Rep has an age recommendation for the play of 14+.) This is a solid production of a classic as well as an imaginative original take, enough of each to be satisfying for both first-time viewers and established Shakespeare connoisseurs.
“Twelfth Night” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St) through September 25. For more information, visit kcrep.org.