Twelfth Night

Shipwrecks, drag, and Balkan brass: Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company brings their athletic and musical vision of Shakespeare to the Lower East Side.

Sir Toby Belch (James Sugg) is flanked by a Balkan brass band in Pig Iron Theatre Company's production of Twelfth Night at Abrons Arts Center.
Sir Toby Belch (James Sugg) is flanked by a Balkan brass band in Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night at Abrons Arts Center.
(© Josh Koenig)

Music is the food of love. And you can have it in excess at Pig Iron Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Like a troupe of wandering troubadours, the Philadelphia-based company is now visiting our fair city via the Abrons Arts Center. One of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies, Twelfth Night is the story of Viola (Kristen Sieh), a shipwrecked young woman of Messaline who washes up on the shores of Illyria. Far from home and without fortune, she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario in order to become a page to Duke Orsino (Dito van Reigersberg). Orsino pines for the Countess Olivia (Birgit Huppuch), but Olivia has her sights set on Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia's steward Malvolio (Chris Thorn) starts to believe that Olivia only has eyes for him. Mistaken identity and unrequited love reign supreme until all is resolved in true Shakespearean fashion: with a wedding (or three).

Pig Iron honors the location of historical Illyria (present-day Croatia) with a Balkan brass band that greets us as we enter the theater, and sticks around for the show. From the frenetic blasts of the trumpet to the haunting groan of the accordion, this irresistible music underscores much of the proceedings, further enriching the mood of the play. It's also really fun music to drink by, as evidenced by the raucous wedding scene that leaves most of the band members passed out on the floor. (You should try the coconut stout in the lobby, by the way.)

The set is a playground, ideal for the scene-jumping Bard of Avon. Set Designer Maiko Matsushima has included a balcony, stairs, a closet, and a steep ramp that wouldn't look out of place in a skate park. This gives director Dan Rothenberg ample opportunity for physical comedy and he does not disappoint as the actors jump, slide, and climb on this Illyrian jungle gym.

Olivera Gajic’s costumes help to clarify tone and character without getting bogged down in anything period-specific. Orsino is dressed like a tech millionaire under the impression that he’s starring in his own French perfume commercial. Sir Toby Belch (James Sugg) looks like an aging Parrothead, wasting away again in Margaritaville. Two dark, bearded men in matching black suits (Jaime Maseda and Mark McCloughan) stand sentinel at the upstage doors. At first glance they’re menacing Albanian bodyguards, but this is an instance where it pays to play against the costume: They’re actually harmless and wide-eyed observers, like curious cats taking in the ridiculous proceedings of their "masters."

Richard Ruiz plays a darkly complex Feste. He sighs under the weight of his Bozo the Clown hair and seems generally "over it" when it comes to these lovelorn nobles. Sieh turns in a convincingly masculine Cesario, out-butched only by her boy-band-handsome twin brother Sebastian (Charles Socarides). As Malvolio, Thorn regularly steals the show with a perfectly balanced act of pomposity and humiliation. The line deliveries are generally competent and clear, although some members of the ensemble have a tendency to telegraph meaning. This is unnecessary. Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue and the rest will follow.

That one quibble aside, this joyfully musical staging will warm your heart and have you rolling in the aisles with laughter. By the play’s conclusion, you might feel the urge to party with this merry band of players. Make sure that you do: They’re only here until February 23, when they pack up like gypsies and move on.

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Twelfth Night

Closed: February 23, 2014