Fiasco Theater offers a Twelfth Night for theatergoers who’ve never seen Twelfth Night or Fiasco Theater before.
For almost a decade, the ensemble company has been praised for its bare-bones productions of Shakespeare (and one Sondheim) that have been both intelligible and inventive. At CSC, they are delivering the Bard’s Christmas season comedy of mistaken identity with their customary clarity, but without that extra spark that characterized their Cymbelline or Into The Woods.
The show begins promising enough, the ensemble assembling with joyful expressions, as if delighted to be entertaining us, before singing a spirited sea chanty, accompanied by guitar. It’s an apt choice of music, leading into the simulation of a shipwreck, which launches the main plot: A shipwrecked Viola (Emily Young) has landed in Illyria, mourning the loss at sea of her twin brother Sebastian (Javier Ignacio.) She disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and begins working as a servant to Orsino, the Duke (Noah Brody, the production’s co-director as well.) The Duke sends Cesario on a mission to woo Olivia, a Countess (Jesse Austrian), on the Duke’s behalf. Olivia has no interest in Orsino, but falls instantly in love with Cesario. For her part, Viola falls in love with Orsino.
But this main plot feels nearly pushed to the side by one of the play’s two subplots, which revolves around Sir Toby Belch (Andy Grotelueschen.) Belch’s feud with Malvolio (Paul L. Coffey) prompts him to try to trick Malvolio into believing that Olivia is in love with him, enlisting as co-conspirators Olivia’s maid (a wonderfully mischievous Tina Chilip) and the clown Feste (Ben Steinfeld, who is also the co-director, musical director, and guitarist.) Belch also eggs a reluctant Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Paco Tolson, who demonstrates that his noticeable turn in Vietgone was no accident) into a duel with an equally reluctant Cesario/Viola.
The actors in this subplot seem to be enjoying themselves more, and the characters feel more alive, than in either the main plot, or the other subplot, which tracks the adventures of Viola’s brother Sebastian, who is frequently mistaken for Cesario, with what should be comic results.
All three strands, which intertwine at the end, are presented competently and clearly. The musical interludes are highlights. But gone are the playful props and clever staging that have been a signature of Fiasco productions. The set is done up in tasteful dark wood, with some wooden barrels and chandeliers, and a balcony, all of which feels like a quaint, sedate 19th century bed and breakfast in Vermont. (Helping that impression is Grotelueschen, with his beard and sweater, looking like either Ben or Jerry.)
That Fiasco is offering a reliable but less exciting production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, would probably not matter as much if it weren’t arriving in the shadow of several recent eye-opening productions of the play in New York. Last year, the Public Theater put on a Twelfth Night in Central Park performed by a cast of over 200, a mix of stage stars like Nikki James and a wide range of community groups, including groups of martial artists, Japanese drummers, letter carriers and Can-Can dancers.
[Editor’s note: Also revelatory is Ethan McSweeney’s Twelfth Night, still running in DC at Harman Hall.]
In 2013, the Shakespeare’s Globe brought to Broadway a Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance as Olivia, that meticulously reproduced what audiences might have seen in Shakespeare’s time (with original musical instruments of the time, costumes made only of material available in Elizabethan England, etc.) It was the only Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen where Viola was convincingly male when the character disguises herself as Cesario. It certainly helped that a male actor (Samuel Barnett) was portraying Viola/Cesario.
The Rylance Twelfth Night was one of the most memorable productions I’ve seen of anything, a hard act for Fiasco to follow. Fiasco previously tackled some of Shakespeare’s more obscure or problem plays; one left the theater thinking “I didn’t know Cymbeline (or Measure for Measure) could be so entertaining.” I left their Twelfth Night thinking “I didn’t remember Twelfth Night is almost three hours long.”
Twelfth Night is on stage at Classic Stage Company (136 E 13th St, between Third and Fourth Avenues, New York, NY 10003) through January 6, 2018.
Tickets and details
Twelfth Night Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, Scenic design by John Doyle, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Ben Stanton, voice consultant Andrew Wade Featuring Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Tina Chilip, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Javier Ignacio, David Samuel, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson and Emily Young. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.