"If music be da food of love, go play on, gimme mo' den extra." Sound familiar, eh, brah? These are the opening lines in "Twelf Nite O Wateva!," James Grant Benton's Hawaiian pidgin version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night, or What You Will," at East West Players.
Don't fret about the language barrier. You'll get every comic beat in Benton's delightfully revisionist conceit. Not only does the Illyrian seacoast of Shakespeare's comedy lend itself perfectly to the play's tropical setting, but the breezy blending of slangy English and idiomatic Hawaiian blows new life into the comedy like a brisk trade wind. All this and authentic Hawaiian hula dancing, too.
The time of the play is given as "A while back, brah," but what we have here is obviously a relatively pristine Hawaii, before its corruption as a tourist mecca. Only the huge silver cross sported by the repressively moralistic Malolio (the Hawaiianized version of Malvolio) hints that the missionaries have already insinuated themselves into paradise. Despite the play's being set in the past, the lingo is as cheeky and contemporary as modern-day slang, even to the point of a few judiciously applied four-letter words.
This "mainland premiere" (of a play that was written some 20 years ago and has received numerous Hawaiian productions) is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare's original, even to a fault. Benton gives us plenty of good fun, but he could well have trimmed a few more scenes, particularly in the second act, which drags a bit.
Patrick Plamondon's striking set features the gaudy, lush colors of the local foliage. Brian Nelson directs with the no-holds-barred broadness of an old-time burlesque. His actors hilariously mug, shrug, double-take and triple-take their way through Shakespeare's convoluted plot. The Hawaiian dialect is well-sustained throughout, although in a couple of instances it inexplicably lapses into music-hall Italian.
As Lahela (Shakespeare's Viola), the appealing Jennifer Fujii is boyishly attractive in her men's attire. Jim Ishida, who plays Prince Amalu (the Duke Orsino character), is amusingly confused about his attraction to his new "man"-servant and go-between (actually Lahela in drag). Kellye Nakahara's Princess Mahealani (the Olivia character) has bounteous dimensions and the timing of a comedy vet. Benjamin Lum's Count Opu-Nui is a lovable buffoon in the best Sir Toby Belch tradition.
The huge unsubtlety of this engaging cast further emphasizes the finely honed comic drollery of Alberto Isaac as Malolio, a prissy, priggish delight whose every flutter and foible is a study in comic precision. Believers in reincarnation will swear that the spirit of Franklin Pangborn is alive and well in Isaac's superb performance.
* "Twelf Nite O Wateva!," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 2. $20. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.