twelfth night

Bedlam’s ‘Twelfth Night’ Double Bill Emphasizes the Play’s Mutability

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.

Three Day Hangover Turns Illyria Into a Midtown Cabaret

Three Day Hangover opens its 2014 season with another refreshing and boozy take on a classic Shakespeare play. They’ve already figured out how to turn Hamlet into a Brooklyn hipster and how to turn the Capulet/Montague feud into a game of beer pong, adapting both with energetic and creative fidelity to Shakespeare’s timeless works. Now, Twelfth Night is transformed into Sir Toby’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret, adapted and directed by Beth Gardiner. Here, we lovesick New Yorkers are treated to the antics of the lonely-hearted bar staff of Illyria. The third floor of McGee’s substitutes for the original mysterious island where a set of fraternal twins, Viola and Sebastian (Laura Gragtmans and Blake Segal), fatefully land after a shipwreck leaves each thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man and finds employment as a barkeep under Duke Orsino’s (Lloyd Mulvey) management. Viola soon comes to love Orsino, who pines after bar-frequenter (and co-owner?) Olivia (Amanda Sykes), who falls for Viola’s romantic gestures on behalf of her master. With live-band Rockstar Karaoke at their side, they take frequent opportunities to express their complex Shakespearean feelings through karaoke pop hits, including songs from The Proclaimers, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga.

The Cast of Twelfth Night or Sir Toby's Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret. Photo by Lloyd Mulvey.
The Cast of Twelfth Night or Sir Toby’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret. Photo by Lloyd Mulvey.

Running the show is Sir Toby Belch, played by a charismatic Colleen Harris, at the microphone. Sir Toby’s role in the adaptation is essential– her running commentary enables the play to run fluidly without losing any audience members who are not familiar with the original. One of the many great things about Three Day Hangover’s productions is how it uses the original text as a launching point for creating something truly accessible and contemporary. Here, for example, Viola and Sebastian’s joy at finding one another again feels so tangible and joyous, and after their dialogue together, it’s only fair for them to express their happiness via Cyndi Lauper. All of the characters’ song choices fit in the plot so naturally, we hardly feel the seamless transition between dialogue and karaoke. Are we muddling Shakespeare’s timeless and poetic words with pop lyrics, tainting the original’s classic essence? I’d say no. And I think Three Day Hangover would say, who the fuck cares?

Laura Gragtmans as Viola
Laura Gragtmans as Viola

As the plot unfolds, the play is intermittently halted by a few of Sir Toby’s antics, some of which worked and some that didn’t. A drinking of “That’s What She Said” in which the audience rings a bell on the table every time a line with sexual interpretations was said led to hilarious results. It worked well in channeling our dirty minds with attentive focus on the words of the play. This best of all worked in creating a happy and dynamic crowd energy. There were times however, when interrupting the play to get an audience member to sing karaoke or to read a few ‘missed connections’ listings on Craigslist felt gimmicky and distracting. I also think that the play’s energy suffered greatly from Three Day Hangover’s new move to McGee’s. Their last season was hosted at Harley’s Smokeshack, now Quinn’s Bar and Grill, whose top floor was a larger and far more versatile space. Actors had pool tables and benches and fire escapes at their creative usage, and audience members were free to move about and follow the action. McGee’s only affords a long, narrow seating area–not very conducive to performance staging. I felt like the actors were struggling to shift around the space, which limited them very noticeably. Also, I know cabarets are usually seated affairs with table service, but this traditional seating arrangement gave the production kind of disconnected, static, and affected atmosphere. Towards the end of the play, I felt the energy drop low, kind of like the way I have felt at dinner theater shows, a kind of false and only half-engagement with the work being presented before you.

Wonderfully acted and creatively re-envisioned, Twelfth Night has all the fun of happy hour at a world-class karaoke bar, but stumbles a bit distractedly away from providing us with an exciting, thoughtful, and reinvigorated adaptation like those we’ve come to expect from this company. Twelfth Night or Sit Toby’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret plays though June 30 at McGee’s. Tickets are only $15, you guys.



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