Co-directed by two of Fiasco’s three artistic directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also worked as a team on Fiasco’s innovative Into the Woods in 2015, this is a more muted, less physical production than Fiasco’s stagings tend to be. Like Fiasco’s Two Gentleman of Verona and Cymbeline, this is a bare-bones production with limited props and scenery.
Set on the island of Illyria after a terrible shipwreck, this Twelfth Night uses numerous sea chanties as well as the original song lyrics by Shakespeare, making this a semi-musical, as was As You Like It. With music director Ben Steinfeld (who also plays an amusing Feste) often behind the piano, other members of the cast alternate on violin, cello and guitar, as well as on the piano when he is in a scene.
Washing up on the shore and believing her twin brother Sebastian has been drowned, Viola decides to dress as a young man named Cesario and obtains a position in the court of Duke Orsino. Orsino, in love with the Countess Olivia, (though not understanding his attraction to Cesario), sends “him” as his emissary to woo the Countess. In mourning for the death of her father and brother and having taken an oath to avoid men for seven years, the Countess is smitten with Cesario and continually requests his return as himself and not as the duke’s representative. When Sebastian turns up looking exactly like his twin sister and taken for “him,” things become quite complicated until the final recognition scene in which all is straightened out.
In the comic subplots, Olivia’s mischievous uncle Sir Toby Belch conspires with her maid Maria, and her suitor, the obtuse and simple Sir Andrew Aguecheek to bring down her haughty and pompous steward Malvolio. At the same time he eggs on Sir Andrew to challenge the favored and oblivious Cesario who ends up being saved by her brother who happens along without anyone’s knowledge of the switch. Still a third plot revolves around Sebastian’s friend and savior, the brigand Antonio who hails from Illyria and is arrested for piracy. Everything ends up happily for all except the killjoy Malvolio who leaves the play swearing he’ll “be revenged on the pack of you.”
The production makes use of the new CSC theater set-up used by Doyle for As You Like It with the audience sitting on three sides, and the playing space being the length of the venue. As staged by Brody and Steinfeld, and designed by Doyle, the play makes use of a piano backed by a ship’s wheel, a dining room table, a chair, some packing cases and a large mirror, as well as the balcony overhanging the stage at the far end. As always in Fiasco productions, the diction is impeccable and every line can be understood. The elimination of several minor characters makes the play very easy to follow.
One clever early touch is to have Viola change into men’s clothing looking in a mirror held up by her brother until they are both dressed identically and we realize that she has a twin. The 20th century costumes by Emily Rebholz appear to be of the 1930’s or 40’s from the length of the women’s dresses. As is often true of Fiasco productions, the actors occasionally react with specific members of the audience as though taking them into their confidence or address them directly as if aware of their presence.
The production uses six actors who are members of the Fiasco Theater and four additional ones, Tina Chilip, Javier Ignacio, Paco Tolson and David Samuel who also appeared in Doyle’s As You Like It. In the leading role of Viola, Emily Young is rather sober and serious. So too Brody who is usually flamboyant and extroverted is a quite restrained Duke Orsino. As the Countess Olivia, Jessie Austrian is strongly commanding of her household staff but melts charmingly as she falls deeper in love with Cesario. Austrian and Brody happen to be married to each other but have no stage time together until the final recognition scene with Viola and Sebastian.
Playing Sir Toby rather younger than is usual, the full-bearded Andy Grotelueschen appears to be having a ball as the practical joker, as does Chilip as his sidekick and later paramour Maria. Tolson is less outrageous than previous Sir Andrew’s and as such more believable. Paul L. Coffey gets a good deal of mileage out of the sober Malvolio who changes when convinced as part of the joke that Olivia looks on him with a romantic interest. As a sort of commentator, balladeer, and jack-of-all-trades, Steinfeld as Feste, Olivia’s jester, livens up the evening by adding a good deal of comedy each time he appears with riddles and foolery. Ignacio, who occasionally makes up part of the band when he is not in a scene, is a suitably confused Sebastian recognized by people he has never met as he is dressed identically to his twin sister. Samuel is fine as both Fabian, servant and sidekick to Sir Toby, and also the impassioned Antonio, friend and mentor to Sebastian.
While not as memorable as several previous Fiasco Theater productions, this Twelfth Night takes a while to get where it is going. After winding up the plot in the first half, it settles down to sparkling comedy in its second. A bare-bones production, it focuses attention on the language and the music rather than the usual rich trappings. It is an easy production to follow without being distracted by extraneous interpretations or ideas.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (through January 6, 2018)
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-877-4210 or visit http://www.classicstage.org.
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission