When describing a Taffety Punk production of a Shakespeare show, I find it best to start with the strangest parts. Not sure you want to see another Twelfth Night? Just wait! You’ll groove to the music as Sir Toby Belch and Feste rock out on ukulele and electric guitar! You’ll hold your breath during Malvolio’s scuba diving scene! You’ll question your sanity as you watch a giant remote-controlled inflatable clownfish flying slowly around the set before exiting stage right!
The Punks are not without their whimsy. But Michelle Shupe’s direction (and, in places, adaptation) of this ever-delightful comedy succeeds for its smarts. Working with a great cast and a fun design team, Shupe steers the ship through every twist and turn with an irreverent and practiced touch, keenly honoring the play’s lowbrow gags while advancing a few higher notions along the way.
Most troupes have the good sense to bring an air of silly misbehavior to Twelfth Night, with its brash supporting characters (particularly Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek), over-enamored leads, and the mistaken-identity jokes brought on by a pair of swapped twins. But Taffety Punk goes further by exploring the cooler, sadder undercurrents of Viola and Sebastian’s dislocation — from each other, of course, but also from their homeland — and casting Illyria not as a temperate idyll but as a sort of Davy Jones limbo, intriguingly designed to evoke an eerie, Atlantis-like underwater seascape as much as it does an above-ground kingdom.
The props and set pieces seem more like sunken treasure than they do the belongings of the living, and the costumes — varyingly modern, punk, and flecked with period detail — feel like a few different centuries washed up all together. The seaweed-y backdrop, out of which stick snarled bits of plastic and a car’s license plate, add to the sense of flotsam. Such scrapped-together scenery might have seemed simply novel — what theatre folk wouldn’t try to make use of their robot clownfish in storage? — but this confusion of place and time adds a haunting quality to Viola’s plight.
At the top of the show, Shupe stages the shipwreck that sweeps our heroine ashore, drawing focus to the image of sinking. We never see Viola (nicely played by Esther Williamson) come back up, and at moments we wonder if she ever did. This macabre possibility emphasizes the erasure of her former life. Can Viola ever reclaim who she was if she may no longer be the living Viola at all? Feste the fool (Kimberly Gilbert), who overtly evokes the figure of Death, underscores this notion, popping up now and again to take an eager interest in Viola, often coming in close enough for — you guessed it — a kiss.
But a smooch from Death isn’t the touch Viola craves; she has her eyes on the duke Orsino (Ricardo Frederick Evans). And so begins the main event: a game-set-match of some of Shakespeare’s most deliciously scripted courtships, exemplified by the love triangle of Viola (now Cesario, the pretend-pageboy), Orsino, and the countess Olivia (Tonya Beckman).
Closes February 23, 2013
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
545 7th Street, SE
2 hours with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Saturdays
Everyone, in fact, is a pleasure to watch. The multi-talented Daniel Flint, who also designed and built the set, endows the character of Malvolio with a sincerity that casts him, by show’s end, in a powerfully sympathetic light (and his unspoken relation to the deathly side of Feste is intriguingly touched on more than once). As Belch, Ian Armstrong relishes the role like an aging rocker, wandering the courtyard in tight pants and a mesh top while drinking from a Bacardi bottle. Jared Mercier, as Aguecheek, is another standout, playing what is often a flamboyant role with refreshing earnestness. If Tweedledee had a lovechild with Kenneth from 30 Rock, the result would be this dumb little charmer.
Original songs by John Slywka and Corliss Preston feature nicely among the festivities, through all of which the ensemble is clearly having a good time (strong performances by Dan Crane as Sebastian, Robert Leembruggen as Antonio, and Jennifer Hopkins as Maria round out the evening). Shupe’s occasional spooky tinge gives this pool an appealing deep end, but the people of Illyria are making plenty of a splash all by themselves.
Twelfth Night or What You Will by William Shakespeare . Directed by Michelle Shupe . Choreographed by Erin Mitchell . Featuring Tonya Beckman, Daniel Crane, Daniel Flint, Kimberly Gilbert, and Esther Williamson . Produced by Taffety Punk . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.