Let’s say you want to spend a night with Shakespeare. You see that Filter Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company are bringing their tour of Twelfth Night to Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater (only $15 if you’re under 30). Maybe you’ve never heard of Filter Theatre before, but you saw the Royal Shakespeare Company when you studied abroad in college: Shakespeare as it’s meant to be! Right on your doorstep! You buy your ticket, dress for the theatre, grab a bite to eat beforehand at one of Durham’s many hip restaurants, and then you get to the show.

Well, if you – like me – found it hard to believe that the RSC would put up a two-night performance in Durham, North Carolina, you probably did a little digging to find out what was in store. You may have even watched the trailers for Twelfth Night on Duke Performances‘ website. Even so, nothing could have prepared you for Filter Theatre’s take on this classic. Research wouldn’t tell you much about what the RSC had to do with the production, but hey if they put their name on it, it has to be good…right? A quick perusal of the program shows that’s about all the RSC had to do with this show, but you may not be disappointed. Or you may be.

Filter Theatre has made a name for themselves in Britain both for bringing raw, new workshopped pieces to the stage as well as producing much amended and roughly-tuned adaptations of classic works. Commissioned by the RSC, this production of Twelfth Night is the latter.

Several lines from the Bard’s comedy seemed to define the spirit of the evening. First, the famous opening lines spoken by the lovesick Duke Orsino (played by Harry Jardine): “If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it.” Jardine, who served as a sort of MC for the production, set the stage – so to speak – for experiential theatre and full audience participation. The company brought the words to life by making music the star of the subsequent 90 minutes.

Instruments and sound equipment littered the stage that is otherwise unadorned. Actors dressed in street clothes gave a nod to their character with one costume piece or another, such as Ronke Adekoluejo as Olivia in blue high heels or Sandy Foster as Feste in suspenders and the token red nose of a clown. Fergus O’Donnell paid more than homage to the mention of Malvolio’s “yellow stockings,” but we won’t give away any surprises here. Besides Dan Poole’s Sir Toby, dressed in full Shakespearian ruff and doublet, Amy Marchant as Viola was the most “costumed” character on stage, wearing a man’s coat and hat borrowed from an audience member to disguise her as the boy servant Cesario that causes so much trouble for Olivia and Orsino. Without a set, costumes, or even lighting design – the house lights stayed on for the duration of the show – Filter relied on the ingenuity of their token sound designs, spearheaded by musicians Alan Pagan and Fred Thomas with contributions from each of the cast as the play unfolded.

With music as the food of their show, Filter allowed Shakespeare to dictate what seemed to be the other half of their heart. Jardine spoke a line of Fabian’s (who is not even listed as a character in this production) with a wink and a nod to the audience: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Improbable fiction, indeed. Billed as a ninety-minute, fast-paced adaptation of the play, the text of Filter’s Twelfth Night could easily have been done in thirty. Drunken revelry took up the rest with long expanses of time filled with music, song, and audience participation, perhaps in homage to the groundlings of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The cast of Filter is well trained, with many high accolades listed in their biographies. Their grasp of the language and their cuts to the script made the plot accessible to even the earliest of Shakespeare beginners: Viola lost her twin in a storm, dressed up like a boy, and worked for Orsino. Orsino sent his new servant to woo Olivia, who in turn fell in love with the ‘boy.’ Feste and Sir Toby played tricks on the uptight servant Malvolio in the sub-plot.

The plot was clear enough. It’s the rest that fulfilled Filter’s reputation for sharply dividing audience opinion. The unenthused reader of Shakespeare may be thrilled at Filter’s off-the-wall interpretation. Fans of Shakespeare may understand the plot and wonder, mouth agape, at Filter’s interpretation, while the Shakespearian expert will either marvel at the significance or be repelled by the liberties Filter takes with the Bard’s text. Complete with pizza delivery, a striptease, and almost a half-hour of psychedelic rock, Filter’s Twelfth Night is a Shakesepeare, Pink Floyd, Rocky Horror lovechild that you just have to see for yourself.

Twelfth Night performs again Saturday, February 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.