A scene from Twelfth Night
(© Keith Patterson)
A scene from Twelfth Night
(© Keith Patterson)
It isn't every day that you get a chance to see Shakespeare performed in Russian by an all-Russian, all-male cast under the direction of a first-rate English director. So theater lovers, and especially avid Shakespeare fans, will want to make the happy journey to BAM for the Chekhov International Theatre Festival's Twelfth Night, helmed by Declan Donnellan -- and not just because the production is a curiosity. It certainly is that, but it's also a ravishing interpretation of the Bard's melancholy, boisterous comedy, designed to an eye-catching fare-thee-well by Nick Ormerod.

Donnellan gets you on his side the moment the lights brighten. He sends the 13-member, testosterone-hearty ensemble out in matching white shirts, black trousers, and black suspenders to play a bossa nova number that Vladimir Pankov and Alexander Gusev have trumped and trumpeted up. As the men deliver the swaying melody, they're laying the groundwork for the famous opening line uttered by the Duke of Orsino (Vladimir Vdovichenkov): "If music be the food of love, play on." This is ear-filling, contemporary music that you really want to play on.

Even before the Duke gets to wax plummily poetic about "sweet-sounding" music, Donnellan does some jockeying with the text. Prior to the actors assuming their individual roles, he has them divvy up a mood-setting expository line about the shipwrecked Viola's plight. Having previously done some acclaimed Shakespeare meddling with his own lauded Cheek By Jowl company, the director takes other liberties here -- notably at the end of the play, when he lets stuffed-shirt Malvolio (Dmitry Shcherbina) have the last comically ominous word.

Aside from Donnellan's judicious tweaking, the supertitles leave a fair amount of the lines on the editing-room floor. Those who know Twelfth Night inside and out but don't understand Russian may miss a few choice lines. What's left to peruse, however, isn't just any old translation of Shakespeare's atmospheric, psychologically profound work. The iambic pentameter of speeches like Viola's to the Duke about the ravages of unexpressed love can be just as evocative in the reading as in the speaking. Purists may balk, but theater isn't always for purists. Indeed, good theater is more often for those who enjoy watching artists in different fields working together at the top of their abilities for a common purpose.

The common purpose here is to make something fresh, funny and meaningful of Shakespeare's comedy about a series of besotted lovers trying to figure out by whom they're actually besotted. Complicating the potential gaiety is the fact that one of those affected, Olivia (Alexey Dadonov), is mourning a deceased brother, and another, Viola (Andrey Kuzichev), is mourning a brother she thinks is deceased, the still-alive Sebastian (Sergey Mukhin). As with all the sly Shakespeare's comedies, hitting the correct bittersweet tone is paramount.

Donnellan, along with everyone surrounding him on stage and in the wings, achieves his purpose with soul-stroking success. On an initially unadorned Peter Brook-like white set, Donnellan has had Ormerod dress the players predominantly in lamentation black for the first half and dropped black panels behind them to serve as columns and trees. For the second half, the look is jubilation white. Lighting designer Judith Greenwood responds accordingly, occasionally shifting hues to spring green and summer red.

It's all simple and economical, the better to set off the players as they amusingly execute familiar scenes, such as the one in which Malvolio finds the letter he thinks Olivia has addressed to him and the one in which Malvolio appears before Olivia wearing the kind of yellow stockings she loathes.

The cast, while fitting neatly into director Donnellan's stylishly English framework, retain what feels like a pronounced Russian ebullience. Vdovichenkov is a handsome, loving, kindly if self-impressed Duke. Kuzichev is sympathetically boyish in his cross-dressing assignment as Viola. Dadonov's Olivia is majestic in grief and infatuation, and Dmitry Scherbina's Malvolio is rightly starched as a butler's livery. Alexander Feklistov is a highly kinetic Sir Toby Belch. Igor Yasulovich plays Feste crisply in somber white face. Dmitry Dyuzhev, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, appears to be made of rubber, and Ilia Ilyin's Maria is a chubby scamp.

Some may call this Twelfth Night fusion Shakespeare. Call it anything you want, but just make sure you go.