Taffety Punk gives Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ a new wave staging

Teresa Castracane/TERESA CASTRACANE - Tonya Beckman as Olivia, and Kimberly Gilbert as Death as Feste in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's Twelfth Night or What You Will

Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” goes “Little Mermaid” in a whimsical new staging by Taffety Punk Theatre Company that’s goofy and buoyant. Occasional bubbles suggest everything’s underwater . . . and what’s that floating across the stage? By golly (or by Nemo), it looks like a large inflated clownfish.

Director Michelle Shupe isn’t spoofing Shakespeare with her high-concept notion, which in a clamshell is this: The action is an underwater fantasia brought on by the opening shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian. In this “Twelfth Night,” the mistaken identities and romantic entanglements all flit through Viola’s mind as she struggles under the waves.

(Teresa Castracane/TERESA CASTRACANE) - Esther Williamson as Viola in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's Twelfth Night or What You Will

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The approach certainly unifies the design. Fishnets and seashells adorn costumes (credited to the ensemble), while blues and greens dominate Brittany Dilberto’s lights in the intimate Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The theme also prompts Shupe to cast Feste, the clown, as Death, and why not? This comedy is famously melancholy and a little cruel, and both leading ladies — Viola and the countess Olivia — grieve for dead brothers (although Viola is happily mistaken).

If Shupe’s notion doesn’t always stay entirely focused, it’s because Viola disappears for such long stretches that it’s tough to remember we’re viewing through her lens. (The crisp tableaux at the end of each act do more work here than they should.) Still, it’s an intriguing excursion, and Shupe — a frequent Shakespearean actress who does swimmingly in her directorial debut — seems to have inspired an unusually balanced, wonderfully confident set of performances.

The scenes between Viola and Olivia are especially sharp. Esther Williamson is unfussy and direct as Viola, which contrasts nicely with Tonya Beckman’s daringly hungry turn as Olivia (a hard-to-get beauty who routinely rebuffs the lovesick Duke Orsino).

Viola, you’ll recall, comes to Olivia dressed as a young man to deliver Orsino’s come-ons; when Olivia finds herself taken in by Viola’s unadorned style, Beckman’s giant smiles and undisguised appetite may remind you of Julia-Louis Dreyfus being naughty as Elaine on “Seinfeld.”

Again, though, Shupe listens to the play so well that you hear the darker connections between these two women. That’s part of the thread that makes the fooling Feste into a sometime Death, played by the subtly dangerous and always incisive Kimberly Gilbert, dressed in black and strumming a ukulele.

This leads to a surprise involving Olivia’s priggish steward Malvolio, who gets a comeuppance from the rowdies Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Maria — but no point in spoiling that here. Just note that Ian Armstrong’s Belch and Jennifer Hopkins’s Maria are heavy metal headbangers (Armstrong even plays a pink electric guitar), that Jared Mercier is understated but delightfully nimble as the nerd Aguecheek, and that Daniel Flint (who also designed the flotsam-themed set) retains a sense of dignity as Malvolio even as he enters in a costume that borrows a sight gag from “Mamma Mia.” The show’s surfaces are playful, and its depths are often unexpectedly rewarding.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

by William Shakespeare. Directed and adapted by Michelle Shupe. About two hours and 15 minutes. Composers and sound design, Corliss Preston and John Slywka; choreography, Erin F. Mitchell. With Dan Crane, Ricardo Frederick Evans, and Robert Leembruggen. Through Feb. 23 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit taffetypunk.com.

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