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Pig Iron's sassy version of Shakespeare's beloved comedy, first staged at Philadelphia's Fringe Festival in 2011, is a bouillabaisse of Balkan and American music. And though it may be a trek downtown to the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, this wild-and-wooly interpretation of the Bard's play makes it well worth the effort.
You must admire a troupe if only for having the steel nerves to stage their Twelfth Night right on the heels of Broadway's all-male version that enshrined the "original practices" of Elizabethan theater into the production, with the formidable Mark Rylance playing Olivia. Pig Iron's mounting is more low-brow than the London import but when it comes to bold physical acting and inventive theatrical touches, Pig Iron stands on its own.
Director Dan Rothenberg's handling of the play merits a high-five for orchestrating its topsy-turvy plot, its blurring of gender, and perhaps most impressively, heightening the play with an amalgam of Balkan, American, and a soupcon of Arabic-inflected rhythms. Though the company has carved its niche into the theatrical landscape with their multi-disciplinary approach to the arts since 1995, Rothenberg isn't just pulling out an old parlor trick from Pig Iron's artistic bag.
Maiko Matsushima's set design is handsomely done with an expansive performing space, a double door at the stage's back wall and a nifty slide built into the set that allows for the performers to make lickety-split entrances into a scene. It also visually accents their loopiest moments as they try to woo a would-be lover or climb up Cupid's ladder, only to discover that they are slip-sliding down again to the bottom-most rung. But then isn't Twelfth Night really about falling in, and out, of love, taking romantic pratfalls, and hopefully becoming wiser along the way? Since all of the characters become bewildered at some point, to a greater or lesser degree, mistaking girls for boys, and vice versa, or deluding themselves with visions of grandeur (think Malvolio), the slide becomes a fitting emblem of romantic love and high society, both slippery slopes indeed.
The production runs long at 2 hours and 45 minutes, but the brisk musical interludes and crackerjack acting, keeps things moving right along. Musicians serenade you even before the lights go up. And, by the time Orsino appears in sight to utter his famous opening line-"If music be the food of love, play on . . ." it rings truer, and with far more resonance, in this music-steeped presentation.
While the music flows through this production like a running brook, it is the actors who ultimately impress Shakespeare's myth upon your mind. Co-founder and company member Dito van Reigersberg, hilariously portrays the melancholy Orsino as a man in love with love. Van Reigersberg is a natural ham and brings much physical humor to his part. Little wonder that he's an alumna of the Martha Graham School of Dance and has a strong dance background to draw upon.
Birgit Huppuch as Olivia embodies the complex nature of the Countess, who resists Duke Orsino's love advances as she faithfully begins her seven-years of mourning for her late brother, not to mention her deceased father. It's intriguing to watch her Olivia slowly emerge from her chrysalis of mourning and slowly evolve into a woman capable of mature romantic love.
Kristen Sieh is ideal as Viola/Cesario, with her trim physique, plucky attitude, and her ability to project her character's sexual frustration. Cross-dressing as a guy, alas, doesn't cancel out one's true sexual identity and feminine vulnerability under the guise of Cesario. Sieh bears a striking resemblance to Charles Socarides, who plays her lost at sea twin brother Sebastian.
When it comes to the comic personages, Richard Ruiz's Feste has the requisite wit and some very impressive musical chops. He's making his Pig Iron debut here but is a veteran actor who has toured nationally in a variety of plays and musicals.
Chris Thorn comes through in spades as the killjoy Malvolio. His exit, stripped to the skin with an Oriental rug serving as his fig leaf, reminds you that Puritans who preach against "cake and ales" seldom live happily-ever-after.
Rounding out the comic collective are Charleigh E. Parker's Maria, who has an infectious laugh. She also possesses a take-charge manner (her bio reveals she grew up as an Air-Force brat), especially when leading the plot to bring down Malvolio. Andy Paterson's Andrew Aguecheek humorously reveals his stunted manhood in the scene when, in madras Bermuda shorts (modern-dress costumes by Olivera Gajic), rides a tricycle across the stage.
The one question mark that I had was the casting of James Sugg as Sir Toby Belch. Sugg, with his elegant physique, simply looks miscast as Olivia's rabble-rousing cousin. Is it de rigueur that Sir Toby should have a stout look? Shakespeare of course never intended his characters to be mere allegories but Sir Toby's surname pretty much suggests that he's no svelte nobleman. But why nit-pick over the size of Sir Toby's girth when the ensemble is, all in all, pulling their weight and rising to their dramatic moments?
f course, I would be remiss not to mention the terrific musicians who perform in the aptly dubbed "The Only Band in Illyria" on stage: Chad Brown (percussion), Patrick Hughes (cornet), Josh Machiz (bass/sousaphone), and Marina Vishnyakova (violin/trumpet), Rosie Langabeer (accordion/trombone). They start out on the stage's sidelines, but before the play is over, immerse themselves into the thick of the actionand add a rich musical dimension to the Bard's comic masterpiece.
This Philadelphia-based troupe has had a number of recent gigs in New York. I first met this company at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival 2013, where they staged their piece of anti-theater Zero Cost House. Though I was intrigued by that show, I found their colorful As You Like It at the New Victory Theater was more accessible. Pig Iron also has been invited by the Public Theater to develop projects and hone their theatrical techniques at their downtown institution, which has upped their company's prestige and allowed them to call New York their second home.
Though there's nothing wrong with nodding to Elizabethan tradition and historical accuracy, there's a whole lot right in simply looking at Shakespeare in the present tense with one eye cocked to the future.