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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Fiasco Theater takes on Shakespeare's beloved comedy at Classic Stage Company.

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The cast of Fiasco Theater's Twelfth Night, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, at Classic Stage Company.
(© Joan Marcus)

As with so many Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night hinges on a shipwreck. Taking a cue from this nautical plot device, Fiasco Theater opens its production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will with a rousing sea shanty about the clipper ship Marco Polo that ends with the cast tempest-tossed. It's a thrilling overture to a ho-hum revival. Visually appealing and brimming with musicality, this Twelfth Night never capsizes, but it does leave us feeling as though we've taken a good voyage of nothing.

The story is clear enough: Viola (Emily Young) washes up on the shore of Illyria, heartbroken over her lost (and possibly drowned) twin brother, Sebastian (Javier Ignacio). With the help of the ruined ship's captain (David Samuel), she disguises herself as a eunuch named Cesario in order to enter the service of Duke Orsino (Noah Brody). The duke pines for the love of Countess Olivia (Jessie Austrian), but she will not see him while she is still in mourning for her father and brother. She makes an exception for Cesario, instantly falling in love, even as Viola develops her own attraction to the duke. Meanwhile, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Grotelueschen) plots a wicked prank on Olivia's steward, Malvolio (Paul L. Coffey). With the help of drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Paco Tolson) and gentlewoman Maria (Tina Chilip), he convinces Malvolio that Olivia is romantically interested in him. Chaos reigns…or at least it ought to.

David Samuel, Tina Chilip, Andy Grotelueschen, and Paco Tolson appear in Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company.
(© Joan Marcus)

Under the direction of Brody and Ben Steinfeld (who also plays the fool, Feste) the production never reaches an adequate clip for Shakespearean comedy: The exposition can be downright plodding at times (Brody and Steinfeld might have benefited from a bolder cut of the text), while conservative performances mostly fail to make an impression over the course of two hours and 45 minutes.

There are exceptions to this: Tolson's outrageously expressive Sir Andrew regularly steals his scenes. He's even more clownish than the reserved and somewhat resentful Feste. Steinfeld masterfully draws out the darkness in Shakespeare's meanest fool, even as he serves a light banquet of the food of love (an acoustic guitar at the ready, Steinfeld also serves as music director). Austrian plays Olivia as we imagine Katharine Hepburn might have, as a sharp-tongued Yankee unafraid to bust some balls.

She may be trying to fit in with her surroundings: This Illyria looks an awful lot like coastal New England roughly a century ago. John Doyle's set features a prominently displayed ship's wheel, with rigging hanging overhead. The wooden floor and mezzanine are holdovers from Doyle's As You Like It, but they work just as well in this world of timber and metal. Emily Rebholz costumes the cast in fuzzy sweaters and earth-tone suits, making Malvolio's yellow stockings (depicted here as fishing waders) stand out even more. Lighting designer Ben Stanton hangs a galaxy of exposed lightbulbs alongside three chandeliers, giving everything an incandescent glow. It all looks very nice, but we're never quite sure what it is adding to the story or why we should care.

Jessie Austrian plays Olivia, and Emily Young plays Viola in Fiasco Theater's Twelfth Night.
(© Joan Marcus)

This indifference might derive from the fact that New York audiences have enjoyed two exceptional productions of Twelfth Night in the last decade (Shakespeare in the Park in 2009 and on Broadway in 2013). There's also Fiasco's reputation as a company whose pared-down stagings have cut to the very heart of classics like Measure for Measure and Into the Woods. That seems to have been the case when the troupe mounted Twelfth Night at the Access Theater in 2010, earning praise for economy and approachability.

Seven years later, this heavier rendition eschews the double-casting and simple design that has become the trademark of the company's work. The result is a Twelfth Night that feels like a budget version of Daniel Sullivan's Shakespeare in the Park revivals, except the unexpected time and place make a poor argument for the script's durability. We know this comedy can glide, which is why it is so disappointing that Fiasco's production merely treads water.

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