Anyone who knows me knows about my obsession with Shakespeare. Give me some mellifluous, honey-tongued verse and I’m content to pass many a happy hour contemplating the brilliance of the pentameter. But though there are literally hundreds of productions of Shakespeare playing in New York each year, I usually approach them with more than my fair share of skepticism and even trepidation. The problem doesn’t lie in the bard’s words, but in the way so many directors and actors approach them.
Let’s face it: a large majority of Shakespearean performances are boring and/or unintelligible. Maybe it has something to do with the hundreds of years of history that weigh down the texts or the way many high school English teachers seem to conspire to suck the life out of the words until we’re left with something so dry and brittle that it can only be understood with Clif’s Notes (and those are pretty boring too). But, while the word “Shakespeare” has come to stand for some lofty “IMPORTANT” theatre that represents the highest heights attainable in the Western canon, Shakespeare the playwright was just a regular guy, trying to make a living by entertaining an audience.
Few people understand this concept. This will become readily apparent as you sample the hundreds of Shakespearean performances offered around the city this summer (where actors and directors treat the text like it’s so IMPORTANT that it must be handled with extreme care and caution)—until you make your way down to Tribeca’s Access Theater, where the Fiasco Theater’s production of Twelfth Night, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, will change the way you experience Shakespeare.
I had my first encounter with the Fiasco Theater last fall, when my roommate took me to see some of his friends from Brown University in a performance of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Mind you, I approached this production with the usual suspicion—especially since having fairly recently seen a stultifying production of Cymbeline in which well known, highly paid actors stood on stage and declaimed unintelligible lines at me for 3 hours. We reached the “theater”—which is really a small room on the fourth
floor (be prepared, it’s a walk up) of a building sandwiched in between bargain clothing shops—and took our seats in the makeshift risers while the actors walked around, half-costumed and mingling with the audience. The set was nothing but a large trunk, two small crates, and six chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The six actors, who played nearly 20 characters, remained onstage throughout the whole performance, changing costume by taking off a sash or putting on a hat. And despite the fact that the set was minimal, the sounds of New York traffic filtered in through the windows, and no famous actors or big budget set designs were there to remind me that we were watching an IMPORTANT PLAY BY SHAKESPEARE, the Fiasco’s Cymbeline was one of the best plays I saw all season—and most certainly some of the best Shakespeare I’d seen in years. I laughed myself silly, and I wasn’t the only one. I left thinking, “Oh—that’s what the play is about!”
On Saturday, I climbed the four flights of stairs to the Access Theatre with much more excitement than I did last fall—because I already knew that I was about to see Shakespeare in the hands of people who truly understand him. I wasn’t disappointed. The Fiasco’s Twelfth Night, which runs until June 20, is a brilliant, funny, moving, and fast-paced production. The design concept seems to emanate from the theater’s very walls, with a strange, vintage-y neo-Victorian mash-up that combines denim and lace in a surprisingly pleasing aesthetic. (I have, on more than one occasion, heard the word “steampunk” thrown around.) The set is once again minimal—all this little company needs is a sturdy wood table and two stools, and they can create dukedoms, shipwrecks, and moving automobiles. The actors create all of their own sound effects—everything from crashing thunder to the drip of water in a dank prison cell—and they also provide all of their own music.
Because music is such an integral piece of this play, it seems like Twelfth Night was the perfect pick for this particular cast. And “if music be the food” of the Fiasco, I encourage them “play on.” The strength of eight voices raised in a cappella harmony rivals anything you’re likely to hear in a large commercial theatre. Every voice rings out clear and strong, and when they come together in song it’s enough to induce chills. And when they’re not singing, the cast is busy creating the world of Twelfth Night as it is rarely seen—it’s a place for laughter, misrule, and mayhem, where the audience is implicated in the hijinks and invited to become a part of this theatrical experience. The actors’ performances are uniformly strong, and I guarantee that even if you’ve heard Viola’s “willow cabin” speech one hundred thousand times, you’ll be hearing it as if for the first. I was particularly enamored of Georgia Cohen’s Olivia and Paul L. Coffey’s Malvolio, two characters about whom I’d never cared much before. But all of the performers knocked me off of my feet (so it’s a good thing I was sitting down), and made me fall in love with this play all over again. The strength of this company is that they seem to truly understand every word, every line, and how each piece is a part of the history and dramaturgy of the play as a whole.
I honestly think that the Fiasco Theater is producing some of the best Shakespeare in New York City—and those who have seen their work know what I mean. And though understandable, affordable, enjoyable Shakespeare often seems like an “improbable fiction,” I promise you that if you get down to Tribeca, you’ll be treated to an evening of theatre “most wonderful!”
PS Tickets are $18, and available HERE. The show is only open through June 20th, so DON’T WAIT to get your tickets. You will regret it if you miss this show. (And as a rabid Fiasco fan, I urge you friend them on facebook, follow them on twitter, and make sure you see everything they do.)
PPS Here are some more reviews of the show, if you’re interested:
Kay Prins, SoA ‘12