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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 14, 2017

Noah Brody
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Fiasco Theater's rollicking, new production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will is the perfect way to spend a cold, winter night. Cozily ensconced within Classic Stage Company's intimate three-quarter space, Shakespeare's beloved comedy has been co-directed with economic flair by Fiasco stalwarts Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld and boasts a resourceful cast who are having even more fun than the audience . . . if that's possible.

Twelfth Night, considered by many to be a ‘perfect play,' boasts wonderful characters in one of Shakespeare's most beautifully structured plots. For those who need a refresher: Duke Orsino of Illyia (a charismatic Brody) is in love with his neighbor Countess Olivia (the lovely Jessie Austrian), but Olivia is in mourning for her recently deceased brother and has sworn off men for seven years in his honor. A shipwrecked young woman, Viola (a luminous Emily Young), is saved by a group of sailors after washing up on shore. She's distraught that her twin brother, Sebastian (a poised Javier Ignacio), has most probably died in the wreck but summons the courage to disguise herself as a boy (called Cesario) in order to work as a page for Duke Orsino. Despite Olivia's rejections, Orsino sends Cesario to woo her on his behalf, but when Olivia sees Cesario she falls in love at first sight. Upon his departure, Olivia sends her narcissistic servant Malvolio (an appropriately stuffy Paul L. Coffey) after Cesario with the gift of a ring. Meanwhile, Olivia's servant Maria (the sensational Tina Chilip), her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (a deliciously lewd Andy Grotelueschen) and Sir Toby's friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a befuddled Paco Tolson), who hopes to marry Olivia himself, are plotting together to expose Malvolio's conceited pomposity. By means of a false letter written by Maria in Olivia's hand they trick Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him. Because of this Malvolio makes a fool of himself in front of her and she promptly has him taken away and locked up for being a madman.

Unbeknownst to her (and everyone else), Viola's twin brother Sebastian survived the shipwreck and arrives in Illyria accompanied by his sea-captain friend, Antonio (a rugged David Samuel), who is wanted for piracy by the Duke. The resemblance between Cesario and Sebastian leads a jealously unwitting Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel. But Antonio intervenes to defend Cesario who he thinks is Sebastian and ends up being arrested for his good deed. After having met Sebastian and thinking he was Cesario, Olivia and Sebastian are now betrothed. Cesario is accused of deserting both Antonio and Olivia when the real Sebastian arrives to apologize for fighting Sir Toby. Seeing the twins together everyone is stupefied and all is revealed. Orsino's fool, Feste (a sensational Steinfeld), produces a letter written by Malvolio while incarcerated and, after being released by Olivia, his conspirators confess to having tricked him with Maria's false letter. Malvolio takes his leave but not before promising revenge. Maria and Sir Toby have married as a way to celebrate their scheme against the poor, aggrieved Malvolio and the play ends as Orsiino welcomes Olivia and Sebastian's union. Realizing his own attraction to Cesario he promises to marry him as soon as he becomes Viola again.

In the Elizabethan era, the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration (January 6) was a festival called Epiphany in which everything was turned upside down, much like the upside-down world of the play. Knowing Twelfth Night was originally written for Epiphany, Fiasco's production couldn't be better timed. Trimmed here and there of minor characters and some dialogue, Fiasco's Twelfth Night has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the transcendently brilliant Shakespeare's Globe production four years ago, starring Mark Rylance (who won a Tony for his stupendous Olivia), Stephen Fry and Samuel Barnett. That dazzling production may end up being one of the greatest things seen in our lifetime, but if you don't think you need to see Twelfth Night again you would be wrong. Great plays can withstand new treatments and new ideas and Fiasco's revival is a rousing success on its own terms. Using a minimum of set pieces and props, the cast whirls and spins in Emily Rebholz's zesty costumes under the shrewd lighting courtesy of Ben Stanton and the clean set design of John Doyle. Directors Brody and Steinfeld, who are both superb in the production, have added a clever, musical, sea-chanty prologue that neatly sets the action moving, and, as Feste, Steinfeld (who's also the Musical Director) gorgeously handles many of the songs that appear in the show utilizing his vocal, guitar and piano skills adroitly. The arrangements all boast haunting melodies that fit perfectly with the wistful tone of this ebullient Twelfth Night. So celebrate the season with Fiasco's simple, yet effective, reimagining of Shakespeare's masterpiece of identity, illusion and illumination.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Through January 6
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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