Many a Shakespearean play has been marred and mangled by a production team hell-bent on a half-baked "directorial concept." On the other hand, if Romeo and Juliet aren't scantily clad lesbian lovers or Hamlet isn't a breakdancing android from outer space, small Off-Off-Broadway productions of the Bard's most famous works can have a hard time selling tickets. Most of us can recall getting dragged glumly to stuffy productions of, say, Othello or King Lear out of a sense of swallowing our cultural medicine—at least, we vaguely remember the first two acts before we dozed off in the third. Why torture ourselves again? Especially when this summer there's a slew of free Shakespeare outdoors, where if nothing else we can enjoy the weather.
As I hunkered down in my seat for Kings County Shakespeare's new production of Twelfth Night in the BRIC Studio theater in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I realized many other theatergoers must have had similar reservations about productions of Shakespeare's workhorses. Glancing around me in the vast, loft-sized studio, I noticed only two people in the audience who were not immediately connected to the production—and both of us were critics.
King's County Shakespeare presents Twelfth Night in a traditional interpretation that attempts, as they say, to be "true to the text." Sets are minimal, though production values are quite high: the elaborate period costumes and the professionalism of the cast are strikingly evident. The actors' comic timing—and the pace in general—seemed to lag in the beginning, most likely a result of the actors having to perform to a nearly empty house that appeared even emptier because of its cavernous size. When they'd warmed up, however, the actors displayed a rollicking physicality and deft sense of the play's bawdy innuendo.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most raucous, gender-bending romantic comedies. Viola disguises herself as Cesario, a page of Duke Orsino, after she believes her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned in a shipwreck. Orsino, whom Viola is secretly smitten with, sends "Cesario" to help him court Countess Olivia, who ends up falling in love with Viola, albeit in her garb as a boy, instead. (In case you wondered, there are no steamy lesbian scenes in this production, though the text seems rife with possibilities for a directorial opportunist.) When Sebastian returns, of course, misplaced identities—and affections—run amok.
The focus of this production, however, is on the ample and impish subplot supplied by the fools. Sir Toby Blech, Sir Andrew Augecheek, and Feste carouse, drink, sing, and play pranks on their priggish foil, the Puritan Malvolio. They trick him into thinking that Olivia is in love with him, despite the fact that he is her humble servant. The fools design ways to make sure he's humbled, if not humiliated, too, whether it's getting him to dress in silly leggings or to repent his desires by locking himself away in a dark box.
Ronald Cohen as Sir Toby and Ian Gould as Sir Andrew are the standouts in a talented and multicultural cast. Cohen, playing the ruby-nosed, salacious old sop, highlights Toby's gregarious desperation to find joy in what remains of his life, even at the expense of others, in a way that is, by turns, hilarious, revolting, and sad. Gould, not to be outdone, displays a limber comic chutzpah as the foppish and cowardly Sir Andrew.
Joseph Small's Malvolio has the necessary malevolent, sneering authority that makes his character enjoyable as the butt of jokes. The fetching Martina Weber, as a gender-twisted Feste, sang lovely, pitch-perfect songs (some original and some traditional) accompanied by live fiddle, percussion, and mandolin. Jovis DePognon was also notable for his twinkle-eyed interpretation of Sebastian.
Director Deborah Wright Houston doubled as the costume designer and chose to use sumptuous, Restoration-era period costumes with frills, lace ruffs, oversized gold buttons, and beautiful details and fabric. The press information claims that she deliberately chose Restoration-era (as opposed to Renaissance) costumes because they "illuminate the excesses in this play," but I am not sure how many in the audience could easily distinguish one era's frilly shirts from another's.
The missing element in the production I saw was a real audience, which was so spread out in the sea of folding chairs that people were too self-conscious to laugh much. The inevitable hushed tone was far removed from the far from stuffy productions in Shakespeare's day: actors had to compete with prostitutes, rowdy conversations, and food thrown from the pit at a time when seeing and being seen were often more important for audience members than the play itself.
This production would have fared better in a much smaller venue, where intimacy allows even a tiny audience a more unified response. It's particularly important in comedies, and most especially in Shakespeare's, where contemporary audiences often need camaraderie and cues from others to relax and enjoy themselves.