Review of Fiasco Theater's Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company

  • Our critic's rating:
    December 15, 2017
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    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 (Jesse 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 Groteleuschen), 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 in 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 his savior David Samuel 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 well worth the taking.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    What the popular press says...

    "Fiasco Theater — whose affable “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” opened on Thursday night at the Classic Stage Company — is to the thickets of Shakespeare what your favorite high school math teacher was to the complexities of calculus. I’m talking about those easygoing, enthusiastic guides who take you by the hand and show you that what you thought was impenetrable not only makes sense, but might also be improbably pleasurable."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "The first time I saw Fiasco was in its rollicking 2011 production of Cymbeline. Armed with recent MFA degrees, the company members had a merry and unpretentious way with Shakespeare, and clearly delighted one another; in Fiasco’s minimal-set, music-infused house style, the actors sat and watched from the sidelines, where cracking up was permitted. Their formula hasn’t changed since then, but their Twelfth Night lacks their usual derring-do."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out