Economy is the name of the game in Bedlam’s two new productions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one titled Twelfth Night (or What You Will) and the other What You Will (or Twelfth Night), playing in rep at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater. Five actors play at least a dozen characters with only everyday outfit accessories to tell them apart. A trusty knit cap differentiates Sir Andrew Aguecheek from Olivia, both played by Susannah Millonzi in the first production. A long folding table and chairs are the only set pieces, used with keen versatility; otherwise the actors use the theater’s natural structure, as well as an empty house seat or two to liven up a scene. The text is likewise economized, slimmed down to a speedy two hours without intermission. And yet, even with the productions’ restraints, never before have you seen a production that so thoroughly and efficiently brings a classic play to life.
Instead of choosing to produce two different, thematically-related plays in rep, as they did with last year’s critical hits, Saint Joan and Hamlet, Bedlam brings us two interpretations of the same play. It’s a practice hardly ever seen in performance. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein might have accomplished something similar by alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein and the Monster, commenting on the nature of the creator-creation relationship and, from what I hear (I only saw one showing), showcasing two quite different performances in either role. Twelfth Night and What You Will, however, are two entirely separate productions, each with its own tone, direction, casting, costumes, staging, etc.
This Twelfth Night combo works as an something of an intellectual exercise for theater practitioners and lovers. According to Artistic Director Eric Tucker, the former play portrays love as “extrememly hard, but in the end magical and rewarding.” What You Will, on the other hand, emphasizes the “maddening” and destructive nature of love. Part of the legacy of Shakespeare’s play is its profound duality: Twelfth Night is hilarious, crass, and farcical, but it also has somber reflections on the nature of loneliness, grief, and death. Its comedy always has a piercing edge. If you fall in love thinking that your lover is someone. is that truly love? Are the laughs bought at Malvolio’s expense worth the utter humiliation and belittlement he suffers? Twelfth Night reminds us consistently of the characters’ suffering, offering beautifully emotional soliloquys and songs. It manages to simultaneously be one of the the funniest and most melancholy of Shakespeare’s works.
Because of Bedlam’s critical approach to the text, it’s not exactly kind to new Shakespeare audiences. Expositional information is hurried and the changing roles only complicates this already intricate plot. At one point, paper dolls are used in an attempt to populate a crowded, fast-paced scene, but the the scene only falls flat and charmless. Some of the soliloquys were short-changed in the scattered rush, as was some of the play’s emotional resonance. In fact, some of the most expressive scenes resulted not from an emotional rendition of the text but rather from smart uses of light and staging. A portable floodlight fills the play with visual power, expertly drawing your gaze and illuminating/shadowing the characters with symbolic depth. It lends the plays an almost filmic quality; it reminded me of the way that a camera guides your eye gently and intimately.
Director Eric Tucker performs as Viola in the Twelfth Night (Or What You Will), while Andrus Nichols (lauded for her performance in last year’s shows) plays Orsino. I’m not sure why the gender switch is included in this production, especially since not much is made of the switch. While Tucker and Nichol are entrancing and expert performers, the gender switch could be considered as hetero-normalizing the play. Gender readings of the play suggest queerness in Olivia’s attraction to the disguised Viola, but here, the attraction is between a man (Tucker) and a woman (Millonzi). I know a certain literature professor who’d be displeased.
I recommend seeing the play for the performances themselves. Each actor seamlessly engenders their multiple roles. And between the two versions, they must have over three-quarters of the play memorized. This inventive, intellectual, and forward-thinking pair of productions are delightful, and I would love to see more deconstructive works like these come to light.