Reviewed by Adrienne Urbanski
Taking on a classic Shakespearean work presents a problem for any modern theater company: how to create a production that is fresh enough to appeal to theatergoers already familiar with the Bard’s repertoire and with ample access to other productions of the work. Thankfully, T. Schreiber Studio’s current production of Twelfth Night more than succeeds in making a well known work feel fresh and compelling.
Much of the play’s success can be largely credited to its wondrous visual presence, expertly executed by costume designer Karen Ann Ledger and set designer George Allison. The play’s gender-bending attributes are well suited for the use of steampunk aesthetics, which merge modern punk and Victorian-era attributes, a fashion that works especially well when the plot spins around a girl masquerading as her twin brother, and a fooled would be suitor, who signals to the object of his affection with yellow stockings.
Juxtaposing technology alongside romantic Victorian designs also serves to add depth and richness to the work. A large screen at the back of stage plays videos to cue the audience into the setting of the work, and to provide additional footage of some of the play’s subtle comedic moments (such as Malvolio’s humorously forced smile). The ornate stage mechanically changes from scene to scene: gilded stairs fold and unfold, doors open and shut. The music of Minnesotan group Cloud Cult plays from a phonograph/mp3 player that the jester Feste wheels across the stage, a good tonal choice for both its traditional and modern aural aesthetics. At the center of the stage is a large crossword puzzle, upon which characters write words providing insight into the tone and motivations of each character and scene.
As is common in most Shakespearean comedies, the play centers on gender-bending and misdirected love: twins Sebastian and Viola are shipwrecked. Viola (Jacqueline van Blene) disguises herself as a man--Cesario--and works in service to Orsino (Shane Colt Jerome), who loves Olivia (Andrea Marie Smith). Except that Olivia falls for "Cesario," even as Viola falls for Orsino.
However, the play’s most comedic moments belong to prim, uptight Malvolio, who, the butt of a prank, is made to believe that the beautiful Olivia has affections for him. Through the letter’s instructions, Malvolio lets loose, donning bright yellow stockings, putting on a large grin, and leaping on the stage in sheer joy. Justin Elfer successfully solicits much laughter in the role, skillfully managing to communicate humor, despite his somewhat outdated Shakespearean English. The large cast succeeds in their roles, expertly conveying the play’s many moments of physical humor. Theatergoers may hesitate at seeing a work so frequently performed, but they can rest assured: director Cat Parker has turned a timeless classic into something new.
Twelfth Night (2hr 30 min, 1 intermission)
Gloria Maddox Theater at T. Schreiber Studios (151 W 26th St, 7th Floor.)
Performances (through 11/23): Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday at 8pm, Sundays 3pm.