Susannah Millonzi, Eric Tucker, Edmund Lewis (kneeling), Andrus Nichols, and Tom O'Keefe in Bedlam's production of What You Will, directed by Tucker, at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.
Susannah Millonzi, Eric Tucker, Edmund Lewis (kneeling), Andrus Nichols, and Tom O'Keefe in Bedlam's production of What You Will, directed by Tucker, at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.
(© Jenny Anderson)

Bedlam's audiences have learned to expect the unexpected. The company became the talk of the downtown theater scene in 2013 with its large, wonderfully imaginative productions of Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, and continued the buzz in 2014 with its adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and a witty staging of Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility. This season, company founders Eric Tucker and Andrus Nichols have trimmed the texts (and subsequently the run times) a bit while still keeping the innovation bar high with their stagings of two very different renditions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or What You Will) at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, calling its far-from-identical twin What You Will (or Twelfth Night).

Played in rep, each production clocks in at a little under two hours (without harming Shakespeare's quirky, convoluted story of love triangles and gender confusion). When Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria, she disguises herself as a man named Cesario, and goes to work for the lovelorn nobleman Orsino, whose desire for the grieving Lady Olivia has gone unrequited for some time. When Olivia meets Cesario (Viola), she falls for him (her), while Orsino too finds himself strangely attracted to Cesario. Meanwhile, thinking his sister dead, Viola's identical twin brother, Sebastian, finds his way to Illyria, and meets Olivia who mistakes him for Cesario.

Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Eric Tucker, Edmund Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe in Bedlam's production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by Tucker, at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.
The Bedlam cast of Twelfth Night at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.
(© Jenny Anderson)

As if all this weren't knotty enough, the other members of Olivia's household — including her drunken uncle, Sir Toby, and several others — conspire against Olivia's prudish steward Malvolio to make him believe that Olivia loves him. Mass confusion ensues when one twin is taken for the other, but all resolves itself with couples united and the arrogant yet strangely sympathetic Malvolio humbled.

Tucker is a master at digging into a Shakespearean text and pulling out surprisingly fresh interpretations. He places his joyously comical What You Will in a 1930s-'40s milieu in which he and his four other actors (all with powdered faces) don white outfits of the period (costumes by Valérie T. Bart), swill gin, speak with affectations, and listen to Billie Holiday records (music, being Orsino's "food of love," figures large in this and the Twelfth Night version). Tucker literally paints his characters as the story unfolds. A red thumbprint on a white jacket indicates a wounded heart, and Malvolio takes a brush to his stockings in order to make them yellow.

These wonderfully talented actors frenetically portray the play's dozen or so characters, sometimes swapping a single role between them, executed most brilliantly by Tom O'Keefe and Susannah Millonzi who sometimes play Viola at the same time — a directorial choice that plays brilliantly within the plot's fascination with gender mutability and the plasticity of sexual attraction. With almost no props, What You Will is driven by hysterical, hyperbolic performances, and the delightful Edmund Lewis as an effete Malvolio nearly brings down the house.

A completely different aesthetic informs Twelfth Night, which looks like it might have been produced in a Long Island garage, complete with orange handheld work lights for spotlights (evocative lighting design in both productions by Les Dickert). A long table with folding legs, several chairs, and actors dressed in everyday clothes sets a radically different tone for this somewhat more serious retelling.

Lewis' Malvolio is far sterner, more indignant, and not nearly as funny. But Millonzi gives a riotous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, delivering her lines in an indistinguishable accent that sounds like a Southern drawl tossed into a washing machine. And when actors aren't delivering lines from atop the table, they're using it for a makeshift puppet show depicting the scene in Olivia's garden. The ensemble proves its musical chops in this production too, with Tom O'Keefe on guitar and all five actors joining in on the folksy songs interspersed throughout the play. For the delightful final number, "With hey, ho, the wind and the rain," we do indeed wish the music would play on.

Both productions have more than enough to recommend them. Though Twelfth Night feels like the rougher-hewn and less polished of the two, What You Will achieves a playful elegance and a mischievousness that toys with the text's gender themes and sexual ambivalence. But it's a testament to the talent of Tucker and the Bedlam team that they have made this play feel as fresh as ever — twice.