SALT LAKE CITY — “We always see Orsino as this kind of brooding, melancholy guy,” said A.K. Murtadha, who plays the lovesick duke in Pioneer Theatre Company’s upcoming staging of Shakespeare’s comedy "Twelfth Night." “But the fact that he is a pirate and a swashbuckler says … there’s a bit of danger about him.”
Anyone familiar with a traditional rendering of Shakespeare’s comedy may be confused by a description of Orsino as a pirate, but for Larry Carpenter, "Twelfth Night's" director, that's kind of the point.
“The place is New Orleans and the time is … after the hurricane of 1812,” said Murtadha as he described the setting for PTC's staging.
And while New Orleans may not seem like a typical setting for Shakespeare, this production, running March 30 through April 14, brings the two together seamlessly.
“I think that Shakespeare works better for American audiences if it has some sort of American point of view or setting,” explained Carpenter.
This isn't the first time Carpenter has given a Shakespeare play an American setting, but he was surprised to discover just how easily "Twelfth Night" fit into early 19th century New Orleans.
“I was doing research on 'Twelfth Night,' which is also the feast of Epiphany, which is also the first night of Mardi Gras,” Carpenter said. “And we just decided that it could be a lot of fun to touch on Mardi Gras and that it could be kind of a neat setting for it.”
Once they decided on the setting, all the other pieces seemed to fall into place. In his research, Carpenter came across the name Jean Lafitte — a smuggler and pirate from New Orleans who helped Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 — and from there, Carpenter knew he had a base for how to start integrating Shakespeare’s fictional characters into American history.
“It was important for (Carpenter) in creating this world, where you have somebody of color in a position of power, to have this tangible reference point,” Murtadha said, explaining how Lafitte became the new foundation for his character Orsino. “For me as an actor, it was wonderful.”
But re-imagining the place and time of the characters isn't all Carpenter has done.
“He’s distilled it down to the basics of what needs to be said, then and there,” Murtadha said of Carpenter’s work. “And it’s a comedy. Mind you, there’s a lot of grief and it’s cruel, but it’s also funny and farcical.”
For Carpenter, enhancing the comedy is part of what helps make the play relatable for contemporary audiences.
“I mean, it’s a play that begins with a shipwreck and death and then ends in hilarity and joy,” Carpenter said. “But we’ve tried to ground our characters in as much realistic behavior as we possibly can and let the seriousness and the comedy grow out of real people and situations … so the audience cares about the people.”
Many of those situations, true to Shakespeare’s themes, address social issues that are still present and relevant. Murtadha explained that while the play addresses racism, multiculturalism, classism, homosexuality and alcoholism, they are handled subtly and naturally, according to the play's characters and contexts.
“That’s the great thing about it,” Murtadha said. “It’s so universal in that sense that our casting has hopefully made it even more universal.”
Setting the play in a New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration helped, too, to give context to the play's many cases of mistaken identity. “Mardi Gras provides a meta-theatrical world,” Murtadha said. “It helps the audience settle in to what they are seeing.”
The setting also gave Carpenter an opportunity to make good on a longtime dream of incorporating an homage to the 1935 Errol Flynn film “Captain Blood” in one of his plays, commissioning original music from composer Scott Killian to give the production a swashbuckling vibe.
“It’s romantic, it’s colorful, it has swash and buckle,” Carpenter said. “It’s a rollicking good time.”Comment on this story
All of these elements: The music, pirates, New Orleans, Mardi Gras and more add up to a unique Shakespeare experience that Carpenter hopes will appeal to both the initiated and the Shakespeare novice alike.
"People get afraid of Shakespeare, but this is accessible," he said "It’s Shakespeare for the people who aren’t so sure they want to see Shakespeare.”
If you go …
What: Pioneer Theatre Company’s "Twelfth Night"
When: March 30–April 14, times vary
Where: Simmons Pioneer Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $25-$44