By Sarah Downs
In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, Shakespeare creates a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ world, in which mistaken (and mis-taken) identity and buffoonery collide, to make a play that brims with humor, schadenfreude and, of course, romance.
Shipwrecked twins Viola (Emily Young) and Sebastian (Javier Ignacio) make their separate ways to the shores of Illyria, each thinking the other has perished in the deep. In search of a safe haven, Viola hits upon the idea to disguise herself as a young man, Cesario, and join the household of Duke Orsino (Noah Brody). The Duke pines for the love of Lady Olivia (Jessie Austrian), but she has abjured the company of men. She is in mourning for her brother and will open the door to no-one. When the Duke sends Cesario to her to plead his case, Olivia relents, only to become entranced by Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia’s batty uncle Sir Toby Belch (Andy Grotelueschen), who spends most of his time drinking and chasing Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, Maria (Tina Chilip), has been encouraging dimwitted Sir Anthony Aguecheek (Paco Tolson) in his pursuit of Olivia’s affections. Aguecheek’s amorous competition includes Olivia’s punctilious steward Malvolio (Paul L. Coffey), whose self-importance presages his downfall. In the meantime, Viola’s twin Sebastian, saved by the devoted Antonio (David Samuel) arrives on the scene. Hilarity, confusion and, eventually, peace ensue.
The performance begins with a rousing sea shanty, effectively taking us aboard ship in a trice, as the actors ‘unpack’ the set from its position center stage. Comprised of a few simple pieces of furniture, John Doyle‘s set has been designed to move and transform. Ben Stanton lights the space in an un-fussy manner, more natural than theatrical. Strings of lights and two simple chandeliers add an almost industrial touch. Drawn from a variety of centuries and mostly in dark hues, Emily Rebholz‘s costuming evokes each person’s history and social position with a subtlety that defies its inventiveness. In this stripped down production, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld (doing double duty both as directors and actors) direct much of the focus on the space between the actors all of whom are excellent. The group has that repertory feel, where the actors know each other well, generating a distinct group dynamic. Interestingly, you can sense the difference between the rep company feel and the style of the two actors who are not regular Fiasco performers, Paco Tolson and Javier Ignacio. The manner in which these two take stage and direct their energy is more direct, which contrast serves the production well.
Emily Young is a lovely Viola, with strength and gentleness in equal measure. Noah Brody is a convincingly noble Duke, as is Jessie Austrian as the haughty noblewoman transformed into amorous schoolgirl. Paul L. Coffey’s prudish Malvolio is great fun as he runs the gamut from stuffy to ecstatic. The trio of schemers Maria, Belch and Aquecheek (Tina Chilip, Andy Groteleuschen and Paco Tolson) are hysterical as they race around the stage, wreaking havoc nonstop. At one point Chilip burst into laughter as the farce hit peak level. It was charming. As a foil to the madness around him, Javier Ignacio’s Sebastian plays the straight man as he chases the tail of the tale, while David Samuel as his savior and overly attentive friend projects earnestness without veering into the pathetic.
It is the wise fool Feste (Ben Steinfeld) who leads us through the narrative, whether within a scene or serenading us with music carefully curated to match the play in style and quality. All of the performers sing, some accompanying themselves on instruments. Steinfeld has an excellent singing voice and projects an easy, relaxed energy. It’s a pleasure to watch someone so comfortable in his own skin. Of course, he is not prisoner to the madcap farce and therefore not driven to push the action as the other characters are, so part of the contrast is built into the play. I wish, however, that a sense of context and clarity were more consistently sustained throughout the production. There are times the empty stage feels just a little too empty.
Fiasco Theater company takes its name from the commedia dell’arte term for a performance that goes off the rails. Taking that concept to heart, the company’s goal is to create performances that hit that sweet spot just before everything falls apart, which mark they hit pretty consistently. At times the humor feels a bit forced, but dancing on the edge between madcap and hyperventilating is not a precise science. It’s a wild ride worth the taking.
TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL, by William Shakespeare, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld; featuring Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Tina Chilip, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Javier Ignacio, David Samuel, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson and Emily Young. Scenic design is by John Doyle, costume design by Emily Rebholz and lighting design by Ben Stanton. Presented by Classic Stage Company: John Doyle, Artistic Director; Jeff Griffin, Executive Producer. Runs November 29, 2017 through January 6, 2018. At CSC (136 East 13th St.) For more info, go to CSC or Fiasco Theater.