nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
April 5, 2009
Brecht meets Shakespeare in Downtown Art's current production of Twelfth Night, with a dash of Hair thrown in for good measure. Billed as a "Gypsy Rock Musical," this lively, song-filled Twelfth Night plays to the exuberant strengths of its young cast of middle school and high school students.
The play begins with a Brechtian pre-show of actors milling around the stage, talking, laughing, warming-up, and getting into costume while the band vamps in the background. Dressed in bright red and purple silk shirts, velvet vests embroidered with gold braid and swirling skirts, with long hair flowing, the actors look like a gypsy-fied company of Hair. The entire company and band remains onstage throughout the play, observing the action. Director Ryan Gilliam uses this familiar Brechtian device not only to remind the audience that it is watching a play, but also to stress the importance of ensemble to this production. The cast as collective forms as important a character as any speaking role. They gasp in unified shock; they laugh in collective glee. When Viola tosses out a ring, they all crawl to seize it. When Feste or Sir Toby bursts into song, everyone joins in.
Downtown Art's resident composer, Michael Hickey, underscores the action with a vivacious, folksy score. The skilled student musicians play with flawless, professional panache, all while assuming the character of a raucous gypsy band. Bass player Hans Bilger does double duty as Sebastian, Viola's lost twin brother, easily transitioning from musician to actor.
The cast tackle Shakespeare with lively aplomb. Dakota Scott makes a smoothly confident Viola, while Rosalind Lilly's somber Olivia conceals a fiery passion. Jasai Chase Owens imbues Sir Toby Belch with street smarts, while Max Molishever makes Sir Toby's foil, Sir Andrew, a loveable, towering oaf. Patrick O'Neill shines as the soberly ridiculous Malvolio, and he manages to find some empathy for a character that can otherwise be played as simply a joke.
The ensemble's infectious joy transcends any stumbling and some jarring directorial choices. Everyone playing an Illyrian has apparently been instructed to speak in a "gypsy" accent, while Viola and Sebastian, as "foreigners," speak in cut-glass English accents. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, meanwhile, is billed in the program as Scottish, but sounds Irish. Perhaps these clashing accents were intended to help differentiate the characters, but in reality, they are distracting and unnecessary.
Gilliam's work with the young actors is to be applauded, but under her direction, the scenes do not meld as seamlessly as they should. There's some unnecessary shuffling with entrances and exits, and some overly elaborate movement (particularly at the three false starts of three beginning tableaux) which slow down transitions.
Still, these are minor details. Gilliam's committed direction, and Hickey's pulsing score, coupled with the ensemble's effervescence, make this Twelfth Night memorable.