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A CurtainUp Review
What You Will

If music be the food of love, play on. .—Duke Orsino
Behind: Miriam Hyman as Olivia Front: Christin Sawyer Davis as Viola
(Photo: Bristol Riverside Theatre)
The World Premiere of What You Will, a hip-hop take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or What You Will is shaking up the Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT). Keith Baker, artistic director, has come up with a pretty unlikely choice for BRT’s regular audience, and produced one of the most interesting shows I’ve seen at this theater. He and choreographer Donald Byrd put this together and co-directed it, working with composer Justin Ellington.

For those who get Shakespeare’s comedies mixed up, Twelfth Night is the one where twins survive a shipwreck and each thinks the other didn’t make it. And they both end up in different parts of Illyria, which in this show is a slick, contemporary urban place. Viola, the girl twin, masquerades as a boy and serves the duke, Orsino, who is enraptured by his bossy yet arbitrary heartthrob, Olivia. But Viola has fallen instantly in love with Orsino, and Olivia has fallen instantly in love with Viola. The boy twin, Sebastian’s part of the story will make it even more complex as things go along. This is also the play with the officious, unfortunate Malvolio who believes he has had greatness thrust upon him. (His is the most outrageous cross-gartered yellow-stockinged get- up I’ve seen yet.)

The directors, creative team, and cast are interested in the intersections and convergence of Shakespeare’s language and rhythms with hip-hop’s. The production focuses on lacing the intricacies of language with hip-hop rhythms, merging iambic pentameter and 4/4. However, this is not an all hip-hop take on Shakespeare, and there is a variety of different kinds of music and sounds. Ellington’s musical direction mixes his recorded original music with live singing, and compelling beats serve as underlayment to some of the action. Sometimes it all works unbelievably well and the rhymes and the rhythms merge. Claudia Pellegrini’s live on stage violin accompaniment (some of which she wrote) is absolutely perfect for this show. The impressive, sophisticated lighting plan mixes trendy club lighting with warm glowy illumination, spots, and more. According to the Program, designer Ryan O’Gara’s interest in lighting actually began when he volunteered at BRT as a kid.

In this play Shakespeare is absolutely obsessed with the idea of wit —who has it and who does not. He fools around with language and the puns flow mercilessly, playing like Elizabethan improvisation. While some contrivances surrounding the recitation of Shakespeare’s lines are successful, some are more like workshopping exercises than stage-ready riffs and need re-framing. The show is fascinating, but it needs both pruning and expanding to create a more integrated marriage of Shakespeare with hip-hop sensibilities. And surely Gabriel Dionisio’s accomplished, effortless breaking could be better incorporated into the main action.

The vigorous prologue number (Robert Morris and Steven Morris’s song, "What You Will") mixes music, dance, and singing into the opening explanatory lines of the play. The words are virtually impossible to understand as they compete with the exciting music, movements, unusual cadence, fast delivery, different mike levels, and elided articulation. Yet Shakespeare has provided the story set-up in the prologue for good reason. It is needed in order to understand all the crazy stuff that will follow. Audience members who are not familiar with the play and can’t make out the words in the introduction could easily get lost going in to this antic play. Articulation problems do clear up after the opening number and it becomes much easier to understand. Yet, paradoxically, except for the huge difficulty "getting" all the words when they’re sung, the show really could use more, not less hip-hop and at times more speed.

It is no exaggeration to say that the acting is all around consistently great. It is hard to single out standouts when everyone in this amazing cast truly is a standout.

A website ( provides a peek at the development process and includes workshop footage and interviews. Although the show would benefit from further development, it is fascinating to get in at the start and see the first production of something that could have legs. BRT’s What You Will is hot, cool, bright, and energetic, and well worth the quick 20 mile drive north on I-95 from Center City Philadelphia.

What You Will
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Keith Baker and Donald Byrd
Musical Direction and original music by Justin Ellington

Cast: Christin Sawyer Davis, Gabriel KwikStep Dionisio, John-Patrick Driscoll, RJ Foster, Abe Goldfarb, Miriam Hyman, Valerie Issembert, Jackson Loo (Dance captain), Peter Macklin, Stephen Pilkington, Brian Richardson, Trevor Vaughn, Carl Wallnau, Claudia Pellegrini (violinist)
Set Design :Hiroshi Iwasaki
Lighting Design: Ryan O’Gara
Costume Design: Linda Bee Stockton
02/10/09 – 03/01/09
Approx 2 hours and 45 mins with one 15 min intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 02/14 performance at the Bristol Riverside Theatre
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