12 Nights
12 Nights Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Twelfth Night was the last happy comedy William Shakespeare wrote—though clearly the man’s mood had already started to darken. His primary source for the story was Barnabe Riche’s prose narrative “Of Apolonius and Silla” (1581), which has its roots, in turn, in a 1531 Italian play called Gl’Ingannati (The Deceived Ones) and, further back, the mistaken-identity comedies of Plautus. Adapted and directed by Sean Graney, the Hypocrites’ 12 Nights is a conflation of the Italian play, Riche’s tale, and Shakespeare’s comedy, performed by only four cast members and lasting just 60 lively minutes.

All three stories center on a young woman who disguises herself as a servant boy, falls madly in love with her employer, and is required to pitch woo on his behalf to another young woman, who falls madly in love with the cross-dresser. Gl’Ingannati plays up the farcical possibilities inherent in the premise, with zany predicaments, wily servants, and dick jokes. Riche adds romance and melodrama, throwing in a journey by sea to Constantinople, an illegitimate pregnancy, and several preachy asides to the reader.

Shakespeare, who had a genius for revision to go along with his genius for poetry and his genius for characterization, streamlines the plot and replaces any sexual indiscretions with innuendo. More fundamentally, he creates an atmosphere of longing and pervasive melancholy, especially early on.

At the outset, each member of the love triangle has reasons to be unhappy. No sooner has Viola been separated from her twin brother in a shipwreck than she finds herself pining for a man who doesn’t even know she’s a woman. Duke Orsino, the object of her affections and ruler of remote Illyria (where the play is set), is in love with Olivia, who couldn’t care less because she’s in deep mourning after the death of her own brother.

Since, as Orsino points out in the famous first lines of the play, music is the food of love, there’s lots of music in Illyria—but it’s the kind that makes you sad. The songs of Feste the clown (replaced by Graney with 80s power ballads like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”) invariably remind the listener that beauty is fleeting, love is fickle, and, by the way, you’re not getting any younger.

There are those who find the play’s tone unpleasant. W.H. Auden, for instance, argued that all the gloominess spoils the comic feeling. “One has a sense,” he said, “of there being inverted commas around the ‘fun.'” But in the hands of a director who can find the right balance between light and dark, the script’s melancholy undertow can add a sense of depth and dry-eyed maturity to what would otherwise be, let’s face it, a pretty idiotic show.

Just look at 12 Nights. You won’t find any depth or maturity in Graney’s version of the tale, which follows the basic outline of Shakespeare’s plot and incorporates snatches of his dialogue, but has an antic energy and follows farcical conventions more in keeping with Gl’Ingannati (the influence of “Apolonius and Silla” is negligible).

There’s nothing but sunny skies in Graney’s Illyria, represented by an AstroTurf rug surrounded by Day-Glo lawn chairs and walls covered with rainbows. The Punky Brewster vibe of the set extends to the rest of the production, from the nostalgic use of Reagan-era music and audio equipment (cassettes, a boom box) to the cast’s cutesy, hyperactive performances.

The production’s unrestrained merriment ends up consigning the lovesick trio of Orsino, Viola, and Olivia to the back burner, bringing to the fore a subplot involving the rowdy members of Olivia’s household. Her Falstaffian kinsman Sir Toby Belch, his foppish friend Andrew Aguecheek, and the wry servingwoman Maria conspire to pull a prank on Oliva’s steward Malvolio, a humorless puritan opposed to fun of any kind. Tricked into believing Olivia is in love with him, Malvolio comes on to her in such bizarre fashion that he winds up committed to a nuthouse.

Like Shylock, the “most notoriously abus’d” Malvolio usually wins the audience’s sympathy in spite of himself. But Graney throws his lot in with the party animals, giving Maria the last word with a speech excusing any mischief making by virtue of her life-loving exuberance.

In many ways, 12 Nights is the comic flip side of the Hypocrites’ 2012 Romeo Juliet, which also used four caffeinated performers in a confined, rec-room-like space to riff on the Capulets and Montagues. But the mix of ardor and goofiness in that show complemented the script, which can be read as a chronicle of adolescent folly and its devastating impact.

Here, the strictly juvenile approach drains the Bard’s play of its complexity, leaving only plot-driven silliness along the lines of his earlier, weaker efforts like The Comedy of Errors. Cast members Tien Doman, Christine Stulik, Zeke Sulkes, and Jeff Trainor are talented and likable clowns, excelling especially at lightning-fast transformations from one character to another (a favorite trope of Graney’s). But you’ll look in vain for the subtlety and sophistication of Twelfth Night—or, for that matter, 12th grade.