Send Shakespeare to the moon.
Put him in the middle of Nazi Germany, the antebellum South, the Prague Spring, the Whiteaker Block Party. The miracle of Shakespeare’s plays, and the iambic mechanics of their impossible flexibility, is that wherever you set them, Shakespeare more or less remains Shakespeare — even in Castro’s Cuba.
Yes, Cottage Theatre’s latest production, directed by Tony Rust, transplants Twelfth Night to the humid locale of 1950s Havana, where a shipwreck lands a pair of American twins, Viola (Tracy Nygard) and Sebastian (Randall Brous), in the orbit of 12th Night, a nightclub run by Don Orsino (Davis N. Smith), who has long yearned for the widowed hand of Olivia (Martha Benson), a wealthy Cuban countess.
Unaware of each other’s survival, the twins are tangled up in the romantic escapades of the island, which involve, among others, Olivia’s profligate uncle Toby Belch (Dale Flynn) and the clueless American upstart Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Anderson), as well as the haughty Malvolio (Earl Ruttencutter), steward to Olivia.
The original play, written as a pleasant bookend to the Christmas season, reveals Shakespeare at his most festive and frolicsome. Even for a romantic comedy, with its requisite cases of mistaken identity and winking double entendre, it is playful to the point of effervescence, and Rust turns this to his advantage, giving us a dreamy, idealized Cuba that is more Ricky Ricardo than Che Guevara.
The results are mostly positive. Thanks to Rust, who plays the jesting club entertainer Feste, and his cast, the play is carried along on a swell of good spirits and romantic slapstick. Benson, as Olivia, is especially good; she inhabits her character with charm and smarts, commanding attention whenever she’s on stage.
Some of the language, funneled through various assumed accents, can be crunchy and difficult to follow, and the Spanish words injected into Shakespeare’s dialogue seem, at moments, ill advised.
Considering the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations — which some believe could turn the former communist stronghold into a Disney-fied tourist shop — Cottage Theatre’s choice (made a year ago) to turn Twelfth Night into a Cuban fiesta seems at once serendipitous and cautionary. The timing is pure luck, but the fanciful vision of Americans washing ashore hints indirectly at colonial daydreams of erotic absorption. What you will often comes true.
How about, instead, Tempest set during the Bay of Pigs, with Prospero as an aging Castro? That could be interesting.
12th Night runs through Feb. 15 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove; $16-$19, 942-8001.