Posted by: strugglesome | September 16, 2011

The Music Man: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!” And so begins (well, sort of…) the play that renowned Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom has called “the perfect comedy”. Harold Bloom has obviously never seen Woody Allen’s Bananas, but that’s beside the point. The point is that this puppy has it all, it contains almost every element from Shakespeare’s other comedies combined, lovers divided, cross-dressing, twins, shipwrecks, disguises, drunken fools, foolish drunks, weddings, deceptions, duels, music, and of course, latent but pervasive homosexuality. If you threw in a bear, a forest and some fairies, would you really need any other play? Except, for, say, the poetry, or whatever. But let’s go back, and start with the title, shall we? In Tudor England Twelfth Night was the celebration that marked the twelfth night after Christmas, an evening of revelry and subversion, at time for reversals of fortune, for kings to become servants and servants kings. In short, twelfth night celebrates the opposite of normalcy, it is a world turned upside down, a universe ruled by fools and hedonists. And in Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production Twelfth Night, that is certainly who is running this show.

The play starts with, oh, wait, we already covered that. Or did we? Because though it’s not written in the actual text, this play really starts with a disaster. A ship goes down somewhere off the coast of Illyria (the oh so exotic modern day Albania) and though we don’t know the full extent of the casualties we do know that the shipwreck has separated two twin siblings, Viola (Sarah Sanford) and Sebastian (Blake DeLong), each of whom thinks the other one is dead. And while the script itself may not include the event, I personally would have loved to see what director Dan Rothenberg and the rest of the company would have done with that. Moreover, there is something very significant in the fact that this story starts with a trauma, a displacement, because not only does it set up the actions of Viola and Sebastian, but it also opens the field for everyone else to become displaced as well,  it literalize the chaos instantly and drives the action of the play up until its final moments. Additionally, Maiko Matsushima’s set design seems to beg for an ocean scene. All done in grainy whites and grays, with ghostly wallpaper decorating the back walls, the minimal set comprises of two doors, one set of stairs, and one enormous slide. The slide is, of course, as one would expect from Matsushima, super cool, but doesn’t actually do much to serve the piece itself. It’s mostly used as a way to make a wacky entrance, a small nod to the physical abilities of the company and the cast. It would have been an amazing wave, though…But there’s no use crying over spilled shipwrecks, now, is there, so I will leave off mourning the loss of a watery grave and move on with the story.

So Viola thinks Sebastian is dead and visa versa, and Viola decides to do the logical thing and disguise herself like a man, get a job with the local Duke (Dito Van Reigersberg as Orsino) and proceeds to earn herself the jealously of her peers (folks playing fellow servants include Alex Torra, Mark McCloughan and Jaime Maseda) and the adoration of her master’s beloved, the haughty Olivia (Birgit Huppuch). Some girls/boys have all the luck. Oliva’s new-found love also dashes the hopes of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Andy Paterson), an empty-headed but amiable enough fellow who spends his time carousing with Sir Toby Belch (James Sugg), Olivia’s ner-do-well uncle, and Feste, the nomad/bum/fool full of wisdom (Scott Greer), and the three amuse themselves by dodging Maria (Charleigh Parker) Olivia’s maid and being scolded by Malvolio (Michael McGuinness) Oliva’s stiff-rumped steward.

And though there are two households in this play, both alike, in dignity (what, like anyone could have resisted that one?) the majority of the time is actually spent with the lady, rather than the lord. His angst and flare for the melodramatic established neatly in the opening scenes of the play (and due to Van Reigersberg’s unapologetic and delicious sense of drama) Duke Orsino sends his new favorite servant Cesario (Viola) on over to Olivia and it is with her that the play stays up to, well, really the end. As Cesario, Stanford’s Viola is prickly, angry, bold and rude to Huppuch’s WASPy and repressed Olivia, resentful of her rival who not only is permitted to be publicly female, but scorns the love of the one man Viola wants. Though, to be fair, he’s also the one man around of a suitable age and station who isn’t her direct blood relation, so, you know, the girl can’t really be picky. The scenes between Stanford and Huppuch are actually some of the strongest work from each of the two actresses. We watch Huppuch’s Olivia bloom with infatuation and quickly grow intoxicated basking in Stanford’s frustration and vitality. The way Viola describes love is the way every woman wants to be loved, for “[Olivia] should not rest / Between the elements of air and earth/ But you should pity [Viola]”. Swoon. Huppuch quickly moves from stiff and self-pitying to adorably giddy and adoring, doting on the confused and concerned Stanford like someone with a new pet. Meanwhile Viola just wants to comfort the lovelorn Orsino, who is so in love with love that he speaks in sighs and whimpers. And he’s not alone in this. Olivia, Viola, Orsino and Sebastian, each one of them is in love with the idea of love then with a person. It’s not really giving away any surprises to tell you that the twins are reunited, DeLong’s cutely indie rock Sebastian and Olivia are quickly married, and of course, she accepts that she’s ended up with a man she’s never really met before with noble grace, and Orsino, when confronted with Cesario’s true feminine nature, basically tells her, “put on a dress and then we can talk”. Of course, that sounds better in rhyme. But then, that’s what this whole play is about, at least for the lovers involved, falling in love with love. The other person in the room is just a bonus.

And if that’s what its like for the lovers, what is it like for everyone else? Because while the lovers are lovely, the fools, drunks and servants are the real stars of this production, and they are led, fearlessly and fantastically, by the twin talents of James Sugg and Scott Greer. Sugg’s Sir Toby is just electrifying, when he’s on stage he’s the only person worth watching. Perpetually drunk (and Sugg as a master at acting drunk) unbearably funny, with a command of the language that is fluid and facile. His every line is either a sexual innuendo, an insult, or both. If the rest of the play takes place in New England, all grey and black and navy tones, somber and serious (costumes by Olivera Gajic) Sugg lives in Miami. He wears a series of synthetic and shiny blazers and rainbow toned pants with panache, his chest hair perennially on display, his hand always clutching a flask. He is complimented by Paterson’s comically meek and adorably nebbish Sir Andrew, whose madras shorts and sherbet toned blazers give him the air of just having wandered off of Princeton’s campus. And Sugg is foiled by Greer’s Feste. Feste is one of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare’s cannon. A vagrant, a wise man, an idiot savant, a truth teller, a story spinner, he’s all these things at once, and more. He has a magical quality that allows him to see the truth in people and state it clearly. As they say, a fool may laugh at a king, especially in this play which rests it’s foundations upon subverting the natural order of things. In this play, the duke is the idiot and the idiot is the leader.  He is the one standing outside of the world of the play, pointing at all of these funny drunken folks and saying, lord, what fools these mortals be. And he can sing. And Greer’s Feste is excellent, thoughtful, smart, critical, wry and wise. If he and Sugg’s Toby made a two-man show and took it on the road they would make a fortune, I tell you. And this boy’s club lives Parker’s Maria, the rather more street-wise Joan Holloway of the piece, sexy, smart and sassy. The only problem lies in McGuinness’ Malvolio. It’s not that McGuinness isn’t talented, he is, in fact, he’s very likeable. And that’s the problem. In order for the humiliation and shame that greets Malvolio to be truly funny, we really have to hate this pompous and self-absorbed character. But McGuinness’ Malvolio is honestly rather nice, stiff and stuffy, sure, but in no way deserving of the punishment that is meted out for him. The long sub-plot devoted to his downfall feels like a detraction from the play, rather than a part of its hilarity and revelry.

But the music, the music my friends! Rosie Langabeer’s wonderful cross-cultural score mixing Gypsy melodies and Balkan tunes, Sephardic tropes and Klezmer notes is just fantastic, and so well performed by her band of Chad Brown, Patrick Huges, Joshua Machiz and Marina Vishnyakova (as well as members of the cast) that we will sit through even a less then stellar scene all for the chance to hear them again. So even if this production doesn’t say anything new and different about this work of theater, Pig Iron certainly got the music part of that food of love thing down pat. And if the love itself isn’t perfect, well, far be it for me to criticize the source material, but it’s hard to fall in love when you aren’t sure if your boyfriend is really your girlfriend. It’s all surprisingly modern, if you think about it.

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is running until the 17th of September. Pick up tickets here.

Comments? Questions? Concerns? I welcome them all! Please feel free to comment below!

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