Thursday, June 10, 2010

Twelfth Night: A Review

I watched in glum horror last night as the American Theatre Wing distributed its little trophies to a bunch of movie stars in an attempt to convince themselves that Broadway still has more cultural relevance than, say, a third-rate sitcom. After the final award for Best Musical went to a show written by the keyboard player for a New Jersey hair metal band whose best days are more than two decades in the past, I thought a lot (and drank even more!) about my role both as a theatre artist (you can roll your eyes now) and theatre goer. What is the point of the whole process if all the acclaim is heaped on a bunch of hot messes designed to separate tourists from Kansas City from their cash? To mount a bunch of shows that aren't bad, per se, but merely okay (in spite of the big names and the fancy marquees and the ungodly expensive tickets)? Is theatre even worth saving if everything, all the spending and starfucking and endless self-congratulation produces a response no more powerful than a "Meh..." And then, when you're afraid that you're approaching a nadir of belief, you see magic.

In Tribeca, Fiasco Theatre has staged a thoroughly brilliant version of Twelfth Night. With a cast of eight and a comparative paucity of scenery and props, the ensemble brings the play to life in a way that's so engaging, so thrilling and so endlessly compelling as to keep the audience completely transfixed for two hours. So how do they do it? How does this small, inspired company manage to create living works of art in front of an audience while most of the midtown theatres struggle to make a play more exciting than the conversations you have in a diner? Easy: Fiasco understands and very visibly loves theatre on a fundamental level.

The truth is that people go to the theatre to see dynamic actors. No production, no matter how grandiose, is of any true merit without a talented ensemble engaging the text, themselves, and the audience. It is in this arena that Fiasco's Twelfth Night succeeds wildly. The eight actors who constitute the ensemble are uniformly excellent. They bring the characters to life in such a vivid way that the two hours the audience gets to spend in Illyria is far, far too short. The play begins with a thrill as the actors take positions around the theatre and sing, creating for the audience the shipwreck that separates Viola and Sebastian. Thus, the company instantly establishes the canny conventions that will drive the production: no stage machinery, no glitzy scenic pieces, no expensive lighting effects can replicate the sublime beauty of a group of humans using their bodies and voices to tell a story. The result is an actor-driven production that never once lags or lets the audience down.

All of that is to say nothing of the performances: I would need a book to break down each of the wonderfully intricate characters that come to life as a part of Twelfth Night. To briefly address each: Ben Steinfeld pulls double duty as both Feste and Sebastian, a combination that would, in the hands of a lesser artist, merely seem absurd. Steinfeld, however, embodies both the jovial clown and the erstwhile romantic hero in a way that almost defies description. One would expect it to be distracting to see Feste and Sebastian as the same person, but Steinfeld so varies the two that even without the distinguishing costume pieces the viewer can tell the difference. Noah Brody is so moving as the lovesick Duke Orsino that the audience will practically beg Olivia on his behalf. Speaking of Olivia, Georgia Cohen plays her with such passionate ferocity that even the most reserved in the audience has no choice but to love her with the same hopeless abandon as the poor lovelorn Duke. Andy Grotelueschen's Sir Toby Belch is the perfect raucous drinking companion whose fun-loving exterior belies a capriciousness and malice that makes him clearly unfit to run the household. Groteleuschen's wonderfully boisterous Toby is matched in his love interest, Maria, played with a wonderfully prim sexuality and playfulness by Elizabeth King-Hall. Sir Toby is also well-met by Haas Regen as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the poor simpleton whose generosity Toby can't help but exploit. Avoiding the standard tack of Aguecheek as an aggressively foolish boor, Regen deploys a hilariously elastic physicality and highlights Aguecheek's naivety, which is hilarious right up until it becomes heartbreaking. In a similarly nuanced way, Paul L. Coffey avoids hollowing Malvolio into the typical sad-sack Puritan and makes the character a transformative study in the price of repression. The yellow-stockings gag plays less like farce here and hints at a profoundly deep look into the psyche of the disturbingly religious. Finally, as Viola, Annie Purcell displays such quick wit and largeness of spirit that it is no great mystery to see why Olivia is so taken by her. I, of course, have done little justice to these wonderful performances. Suffice it to say that each member of the ensemble acts with such ultimate commitment, such robust athleticism and precision, and such unadulterated joy that even the most cynical observer would find it impossible to tear his gaze away.

Ultimately, Fiasco is a company that manages to deliver both the honesty and the romance that theatre gives the audience when done well. Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, along with vocal coach Jessie Austrian, take responsibility for bringing the play to life in a truthful way that captures all the majesty and nuance that constitutes Shakespeare's unique genius. In each of his plays--whether comedy or tragedy--we see profoundly human moments of success and failure, rapture and despair, beauty and squalor. The magic of their production is that the play contains hilarious and touching moments side-by-side and none of it seems forced or false. By focusing on the ensemble and using humans to do the storytelling, the company magnifies the humanity of the text. Ultimately, Fiasco make brilliant and moving theatre by showing immense respect for the material, the audience, and each other. They have rejected the ugly cynicism of the "art-as-product" attitude that dominates the commercial theatre in favor of a brand of unique joy that is in all too short supply today. More artists need to be willing to engage themselves and their art in such a bold way. Midtown should be so lucky.

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