Shakespeare Off-Broadway, a new company seeking to offer “evocative, affordable productions of William Shakespeare's classic plays in an ongoing format,” makes its debut with one of Shakespeare’s best and most popular works, the romantic comedy Twelfth Night, currently running at The Players Theatre on MacDougal Street.
This is a play that rarely fails to entertain. Written a few years after the death of Shakespeare’s twin son Hamnet, brother of Judith, the play is a deeply moving story about love between fraternal twins and the unique grief felt when one of them apparently dies. Of course, the play is also a delightful exploration into the foibles of romantic desire. Cross dressing and unrequited love abound in Shakespeare’s Illyria. And of course, plenty of music, the “food of love” as the play’s opening line tells us.
Shakespeare Off-Broadway’s production of this classic is a somewhat jumbled affair, very much reminiscent of a college production. There are some aspects that are admirable, notably the clarity and accessibility of the story despite significant cuts and the rearranging of some scenes. The youthful cast is uneven yet they all speak clearly, quickly and with energy.
Malvolio, the play’s comical villain, is wonderfully played by Jonathan Bethea. He makes a strong impression the moment he appears, reeking with haughty contempt. Later, as he is duped into an absurd attempt at seduction, he is a delight to watch. Also entertaining is Tyler Nye as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the hapless (and well heeled) companion to the mischievous Sir Toby Belch. It is to his credit that Nye is able to make the stupid and cowardly Knight likable too.
As Viola, the play’s heroine, Maggie McGuire’s best moments come during the latter scenes of the play, particularly when she, disguised as messenger boy Cesario, secretly confesses her love to Duke Orsino with the simple delivery of the line, “My father had a daughter loved a man.” Her performance is understated yet engaging.
The design elements are oddly period-specific and weirdly incongruous: an 18th Century set adorns the stage yet most of the cast is dressed in clothing from the 1930s. Maria, alone, sports a costume and a hairstyle from a decade later. Sebastian, in polyester pants and a long wig, seems to have wandered in from the 1970s.
For the most part the story unfolds clearly and cleanly. Some of the cuts to the text are a bit severe (Fabian is completely amputated). If this is an attempt at making the play more accessible to contemporary audiences, it is a mistake. The recent Broadway success of The Globe’s nearly uncut Twelfth Night proved that today’s audiences can handle Shakespeare’s verse just fine.
At tickets selling for $35-$55, the production arguably meets its goal of being affordable. However, the production is not really evocative of anything other than a fairly standard production of this highly entertaining play.