Fiasco Theater’s ‘Twelfth Night’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
A shipwreck. Separated twins. A romantic triangle. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has all of the delicious plot points and rich characters that one could hope for. Unfortunately, Fiasco Theater’s production, presented as part of Classic Stage Company’s 50th anniversary season, reduces the play to an egocentric, uninspired staging that left me wondering if anyone outside of the indulgent company of actors watched a run-through before subjecting the audience.
I had great hopes for Fiasco’s Twelfth Night. The ensemble theater company, created by members of Brown University/Trinity Rep.’s M.F.A. program, received critical acclaim for its stripped-down version of Into the Woods as well as its notable production of Cymbeline. Putting past accolades aside, co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have steered the 10-member company towards an unfortunate disconnect that favors shouting and posturing over any emotional connection.
Off-putting even before the play begins is the company’s prelude as they enter the theater and engage with the audience. I’d been told by a fellow theatergoer that this is a “thing” and part of Fiasco’s ethos, but why I’d want to hear actress Jessie Austrian (Olivia) gasp upon recognizing a friend in the audience and shout to her that they should meet in the lobby after the performance is beyond my grasp.
Mistaken identity is a key factor in Shakespeare’s plot, which follows Viola (Emily Young) as she disguises herself and becomes a page to Orsino (Noah Brody) as he attempts to court Olivia. A subplot involves a feud between Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Grotelueschen) and her steward, Malvolio (Paul L. Coffey), in which Belch and his cronies convince Malvolio of Olivia’s romantic interest. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother, Sebastian (Javier Ignacio) has also washed up on Illyria’s shores and appears to sort things out by play’s end.
Plot twists notwithstanding, Twelfth Night holds some of Shakespeare’s most recognizable monologues, beautifully crafted speeches in iambic pentameter that do the work for themselves if their deliverers need only let them. Young, as the resilient Viola, and Steinfeld as Feste, the Fool, fare best, while the remainder of the cast seems to be caught up in vocal and physical histrionics.
In an interview with Owen Horsley, RSC Director in Residence, Fiasco’s co-directors discussed their approach. Steinfeld states that “we often use a series of games and exercises that help us reveal dynamics, responsiveness, and the architecture of the thoughts. Then we move into a mode of physicality (while still at the table) that lets each actor explore the connection between text, body and behavior before any staging gets introduced.”
The disconnect between process and presentation is painfully evident. What is deeply lacking in nearly every moment of this production is any authentic human connection among its players. Stomping, posturing, shouting, and buffoonish gestures abound, if only occasionally reprieved by an eye-catching stage picture or Steinfeld’s original score. Fiasco’s mission states that “while we hope to avoid on-stage disasters, we do believe that it is only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco that the possibility exists of creating something special.”
I applaud the risk, but in this instance, Twelfth Night is, indeed, a fiasco.
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through January 6
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.