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A CurtainUp Review
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
Twelfth Night
(L–R) Members of the company of Twelfth Night (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Between 2009 and 2010, New York audiences were treated to no less than three productions of Twelfth Night. The first was at the (now-defunct) Pearl and was followed a few months later by a star-studded Shakespeare in the Park production. The following summer, a much smaller staging at Tribeca’s Access Theater debuted the Fiasco Theater, an artist-directed company of graduates from the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program.

Seven years later, after garnering national attention for their production of Into the Woods, Fiasco returns to their roots, revisiting what many consider to be Shakespeare's best comedy as visiting artists at Classic Stage Company. (Incidentally, this presentation once again follows a Public Theater production of the play, last spring through their Mobile Unit. It seems Twelfth Nights never travel alone.)

Fiasco's productions typically focus on using simplicity of staging to emphasize storytelling and language. The result here is understated, satisfying but without offering a striking new take on a classic work. This carries the risk of the production failing to distinguish itself. But what stands out most strongly here is the collaborative spirit amongst the performers. In the companionable space at CSC, an intimacy amongst the cast transfers over to the audience as well. Viewers feel welcomed in as vital participants just through the act of being present and watching.

Since it's easy to mix up the Bard's many comedies, a quick recap: Twelfth Night starts with a shipwreck that separates Viola (Emily Young) from her twin brother Sebastian (Javier Ignacio) and strands her in Illyria. To ensure her safety, she disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and becomes a servant to the duke Orsino (Noah Brody). Orsino sends Cesario to court Olivia (Jessie Austrian), who in turn falls in love with the messenger instead of the master. Viola, meanwhile, harbors her own feelings for Orsino. A separate plot involves a mischievous scheme against Olivia's servant Malvolio (Paul L. Coffey) perpetrated by her handmaid Maria (Tina Chilip) and a band of accomplices.

In Fiasco's production, directed by Brody and Ben Steinfeld (who also plays Feste, the stock fool character), the playfulness of the cast gives the production the air of a group of friends digging into some Shakespeare for the thrill of it—while avoiding a "let’s put on a show" aesthetic. Despite the play's clear a-plot/b-plot construction, there's a feeling of each member of the ensemble contributing throughout — beyond the scope of her or his own character.

For one thing, even when cast members aren't on stage, they're usually still in the room, taking in the show from the back wall. These are not actors sitting, waiting for their next cue. Instead, they are spectators looking on with evident glee and enjoying Shakespeare's comedy along with the audience.

A similar spontaneity extends onto the stage. The actors sometimes coax one another to the point of breaking into laughter, or have short improvised exchanges with audience members on a few minor occasions when things didn't go according to plan.

Rather than coming off as unprofessional, this informality feels sincere and genuine. It might fade in time, but hopefully not. It's striking and truly enjoyable to see a group of experienced actors obviously having so much fun with the material. Their doing so doesn't betray the play, but often enhances it, giving us license not to overthink the increasingly improbable and unbelievable twists.

Within the context of this season at Classic Stage Company, the theater's first under the artistic direction of John Doyle, the play clearly fits in. Those who saw CSC's last production (As You Like It., which Doyle himself directed and designed) will find this staging to have a very similar feel. This is in part because Doyle has once again taken on the role of scenic designer here. He uses a lightness of hand, relying mostly on the architecture of the theater, lighting (designed by Ben Stanton), and minimal props (designed by Andrew Diaz). The clearest evocation of a given space and time comes from Emily Rebholz's costume design.

But Fiasco's style is also generally akin to Doyle's, most obviously so in its integration of music and instruments played by actors. Steinfeld also takes on the responsibility of musical director here—a natural choice, since Feste produces much of the play's music. Rather than having the fool be the sole musician, he is joined by other performers throughout the show.

For audiences returning to CSC for the second half of this Shakespearean double feature (the first of three "acts" that organize CSC's 2017–18 season, with "Americans" and "Musical Theater" to follow), the similarity between the two productions may be a liability. The two comedies, however different, can't help but blur into one another. While Fiasco and Doyle are both known for innovative theatrical approaches, juxtaposing their styles in such a way makes each feel less distinctive.

On its own, though, Fiasco's Twelfth Night is a skillful and joyous take on an old favorite. The production feels especially welcome for this time of year (beyond the obvious connection between the title and the Christmas holiday), as we come in from the cold to enjoy time with friends and family. In CSC's theater, marked with warm wood tones and a sociable arrangement of the audience around three sides of the stage, that's exactly what Fiasco has given us. The cheery band of performers gives off a most festive energy, and it's easy to feel among friends as you're along for the ride.

If Shakespeare be the eggnog of merriment, play on.

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Twelfth Night, or What You Will
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld

with Jessie Austrian (Olivia), Noah Brody (Orsino), Tina Chilip (Maria), Paul L. Coffey (Malvolio), Andy Grotelueschen (Sir Toby Belch), Javier Ignacio (Sebastian), David Samuel (Antonio), Ben Steinfeld (Feste), Paco Tolson (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Emily Young (Viola)
Scenic Design: John Doyle
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Voice Consultant: Andrew Wade
Musical Direction: Ben Steinfeld
Fight Choreography: Noah Brody
Associate Set Design: David L. Arsenault
Props Design: Andrew Diaz
Production Stage Manager: Kristin M. Herrick
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
A production of Fiasco Theater, presented by Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)
Tickets: $60–$125; (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111,, or in person at the theater
From 11/29/2017; opened 12/13/2017; closing 1/6/2018
Performance times: Tuesdays–Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 12/8/2017 performance

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