Twelfth Night, or What You Will
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 16, 2008
Twelfth Night meets The Tempest—sort of—in T. Schreiber Studio's inventive new production of William Shakespeare's classic romantic comedy. In director Cat Parker's conception of the play, a storm at sea brings strangers to a magical island who transform their own lives and those of the isle's inhabitants as a result of their visitation. And there's a Prospero-like figure in this Twelfth Night, as well—Feste, whom Parker refers to in program notes as the story's "Merlin," is seen to be pulling the strings everywhere in this play, using his mystical machinations to bring Viola and Sebastian to Orsino and Olivia and restore balance and happiness to their unfulfilled lives.
It's a charming and insightful conceit that works really well. Feste, usually simply Olivia's Fool, here takes on the guise of the sea captain who rescues Viola from the shipwreck that, she believes, has taken the life of her twin brother Sebastian. Feste/Captain gives Viola some men's clothes and she assumes the identity of Cesario, and goes to seek employment with Duke Orsino. Feste also appears as Antonio, the young man who saves Sebastian from the shipwreck and brings him ashore to Illyria. Eventually, thanks to further manipulations on the part of Feste, Viola and Sebastian discover one another, but not before they each fall under the spells of first love (she with her boss, Orsino; he with Orsino's intended, whom Viola/Cesario has been wooing on Orsino's behalf, the melancholy Lady Olivia).
Parker's realization of this famous play stresses the inevitability of these two matches, rather than the temporary distractions that Viola's gender-bending brings about: there's never a hint that Orsino is experiencing sexual panic that he might be in love with one of his pages, for example, and that's a real relief.
Parker does not stint, though, on the comic subplot involving Olivia's cousin Sir Toby Belch, her attendant Maria, and their battle against Olivia's pompous steward, Malvolio. The play's major set pieces—the famous "letter scene" in which Malvolio receives what he thinks is a love letter from Lady Olivia; its aftermath, in which Malvolio parades in front of his mistress foolishly, having followed what he thinks are her instructions; and the cowards' duel between Toby's pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola/Cesario—are all performed here with great wit and panache. So even though you may leave this Twelfth Night with a new understanding of the how the forces of destiny rule its characters, you won't feel at all cheated out of experiencing the tomfoolery that the play is justly renowned for.
Credit for all of this goes to Parker and her cast, which is exemplary. Jacqueline van Biene's Viola and Andrea Marie Smith's Olivia emerge as the strongest characters—they are Feste's willing collaborators while Shane Colt Jerome's Orsino and Collin McGee's Sebastian are Feste's more passive re-actors. Matt Steiner does excellent work as Feste, creating a winningly wise and beneficent fool to guide us through the world of the play. Sterling Coyne (Sir Toby), Will Ellis (Sir Andrew), Mari Minges (Maria), and Julian Elfer (Malvolio) offer superb comedic turns; the letter scene, in particular, is a high-spirited and energetic triumph of timing and choreography.
The production concept for this Twelfth Night is based on the relatively little-known aesthetic of steampunk, a blend of Victorian fantasia with sci-fi. Designers George Allison (sets), Karen Ann Ledger (costumes), David Bova (wigs and hair), Paul Hackenmueller (lighting), Cloud Cult (music), and Chris Rummel (sound) pull out all the stops to create a lavish and internally consistent world for the play, achieving a look and feel that is truly unique. The steampunk trappings contribute a distinctive ambience for the piece, a manifestation of the play (and its author's) admiring celebration of artistic inventiveness; it's a remarkable achievement.
Also remarkable is that this is the first Shakespeare play produced by T. Schreiber Studio in more than three decades. Kudos to dramaturg/coach Page Clements for helping the company realize a surefootedness with the language and style that is often lacking in productions from ensembles that tackle the Bard with far more frequency.
This is, all in all, a Twelfth Night to remember, one that adheres to the spirit of Shakespeare beautifully by constantly finding surprises and, above all else, honest-to-goodness joy within it.