Review at NY Theatre.com
To tell a story well is a powerful act. To take the audience on a journey, enlighten and entertain them and bring them home again is an art that humanity has been obsessed with as long as there has been culture. I have seen many iterations of Twelfth Night—from the Public Theatre to high school scene work. This play is among Shakespeare’s most popular works. Fiasco Theatre’s production has been mounted in my favorite style—a simple, bare bones mounting with just enough production value to tell the story and support the text. There is no attempt to hide the fact that you will be seeing actors portraying characters to tell you the story. The actors appear before and after the performance and interact with the audience and during the performance, the seating areas are washed with the same light that is being used onstage.
Under the co-direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the company has produced a charming, energetic staging of Twelfth Night. The actors are all accomplished and all work together effortlessly. The cutting of the script gives us the story and gets rid of any extraneous characters by either deleting them entirely or in some cases conflating them. With a small company and double casting, they tell this story we know with charm and grace. Their production style is presentational, changing into their different characters just off to the side with no attempt to fool the audience as to the fact that there is double casting going on. They also use direct address, incorporating the audience into the action of the play. Over the last 20 years this producing style has become more and more popular, growing out of the First Practices movement in Shakespearean production. I think it is a style that suits the elevation of Shakespeare’s texts extremely well.
This company is ably guided by their directors into a sprightly, lyrical version of the play. Brody is suitably love-struck as Orsino, following the text into the contradictions of the character. It is a pleasure to see him praise and then condemn women all within a few minutes. Brody also plays Antonio in this production, a role that has been notably shortened. Personally, I did not miss the latter scenes with Antonio—in the interest of good storytelling they let the confusion of the last act stay with the love interests. It seems to be a wise, economical choice. Paul Coffey seemed to warm up into the role of Malvolio. He is not the most prepossessing Malvolio I have ever seen, but he plays the role with solid commitment and conviction. Georgia Cohen is both funny and sexual as Olivia. She is a charming, engaging actress. Andy Grotelueschen as Sir Toby is exciting and very funny. He has an excellent grasp of Shakespearean language. He is able to stay connected to his text from natural prose to sung language. Elizabeth King-Hall as Maria is charming, bawdy, and vengeful as needed. And what fun she seems to be having! It was great to watch her work. Annie Purcell’s Viola is clear and passionate—just what you need in this rather heady heroine. Haas Regen as Sir Andrew Aguecheek has all the commensurate skills as a clown to pull off this marvelous boob of a character. His work is free and fun to watch. Ben Steinfeld as both Feste and Sebastian is very accomplished, a lovely pairing with Purcell’s Viola. His singing is absolutely stirring and a high point of the evening. Feste is one of Shakespeare’s darkest clowns. Here Steinfeld gives us the lyricism and incredible wit of the character very clearly. I missed a bit of the character’s darkness and cynicism.
The costumes, designed by Whitney Locher, are just enough to tell the story and give us a sense of each character. The design combines a period feel with a contemporaneous sense that is very appealing. The set, designed by Jacques Roy, consists of an extremely sturdy table that becomes everything the characters require—a boat, a prison, and even a car at one point. The lights by Tim Cryan are just what they need to be—not too much, not too little: just right.
All in all, this is a young company to watch. I would highly recommend seeing their work. One can only hope that they continue to grow and reach outside of themselves to expand their abilities. Working as an ensemble has great advantages and some pitfalls. Hopefully they will negotiate this terrain successfully. So far, so marvelous.