By William Shakespeare; Directed by Lynnea Benson
Produced by Frog and Peach Theatre Company
Off Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 3.17.19
Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street
by Dan Rubins on 2.25.19
Kyle Primack and Karoline Patrick in Twelfth Night. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: Although there are some bright moments, this trimmed-down Twelfth Night lacks wit and clarity.
There’s actually a rather fascinating set design for Frog and Peach’s Twelfth Night, currently running at the Sheen Center’s black box theatre. Asa Benally’s set features an array of wood furniture, all overgrown with grass, amongst a curious collection of mismatched objects: a candlestick on a ladder, a teacup brimming with grapes. But the actors never interact with the set, never take it apart, never show any indication that anyone knows what it means. Save one or two brief exceptions, director Lynnea Benson constructs all the scenes with the actors standing in a horizontal line a few feet downstage of the quirky decorations.
And the approach to the play itself feels rather like the treatment of the scenery. Twelfth Night is all there—or most of it is, anyway, in this unobtrusively cut-down version—but it’s not sufficiently excavated to give newcomers to this story much clarity about what’s going on or why Shakespeare’s comedy deserves their patronage. More a series of scene studies in progress than a fully realized production, you can almost see the line numbers accumulating in the play-text’s margins as the blank verse steadily inches by.
When staged as joyfully as Shakespeare in the Park’s showtune-infused production this past summer or as cleverly as Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2013 Broadway revival with Mark Rylance, Twelfth Night ranks at the top of Shakespeare’s most uproarious works (and I’ve seen many a smaller-scale production that proved this, too). When Viola (Alyssa Diamond) finds herself shipwrecked on the isle of Illyria, she dons men’s apparel and joins the service of the Duke Orsino (Jonathan Reed Wexler), for whom she quickly swoons. But Orsino sends his new “man”-servant off to woo the aloof Olivia (Karoline Patrick) on his behalf, little expecting that Olivia will fall hard for “Cesario,” Viola’s male disguise. Gender-bending hilarity should normally result, but the Frog and Peach production barely dips a toe in the waters of sexual ambiguity or confusion, partly because Wexler’s Orsino is just too much of a hammy poser to believably be the object of thoughtful Viola’s affections.
The stilted staging, along with some contagious memorization issues, hamper most of the actors’ abilities to channel clear choices about their characters, but there’s a blessedly human performance from Kyle Primack, as Viola’s lost and wandering twin Sebastian. Primack both nimbly navigates the comedy of his short scenes and successfully includes the audience in his adventures, flirtatiously singling out some front-rowers when he declares his intention to survey “the things of fame that do renown this city.” (Gone are the usual hints of homoerotic tension between Sebastian and his guide Antonio, but John L. Payne infuses Antonio’s obsessive care-taking with a fatherly attention for the fatherless Sebastian, which works too.) There’s also some wry liveliness in Amy Frances Quint’s take on Olivia’s maidservant Maris, amusing squeamishness at the prospect of fighting Cesario from Jamar Brathwaite's Sir Andrew, and some surprise, winking jollity from Steven Ungar in the bit part of Fabian.
Occasionally, Benson draws the audience’s focus away from where it needs to be: an extended slapsticky routine for two sailors recovering from the shipwreck literally upstages Viola’s crucial first scene, our only shot at getting a handle on who she is, why she’s sad, and why she’ll be dressed as a boy for the rest of the performance. A superimposed flamenco-themed romance between Curio and Valentine, Orsino’s attendants, can be distracting during key speeches as well.
And it’s not just exposition we miss out on. Perhaps in the service of efficiency—the press release gleefully bills this production as “over before you know it”—actors tend to zoom through most of their opportunities to draw laughs from Shakespeare’s wicked wordplay and fine-tuned situational comedy. (Feste’s bawdy “Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage” should at least get time for a chuckle, right?)
Supporters of Shakespeare onstage should celebrate the widening of opportunities to see the plays in New York beyond annual traditions like Shakespeare in the Park and the occasional starry Broadway offering, like Glenda Jackson’s upcoming King Lear. But expanding the Shakespeare umbrella oughtn’t come at the expense of providing first-time audiences with the laser-beam precision of storytelling that will keep them coming back for more.
(Twelfth Night plays at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, through March 17, 2019. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30; Sundays at 3. Tickets are $24.95 and $29.95 and are available at sheencenter.org or by calling 212-925-2812. For more information visit frogandpeachtheatre.org.)
Twelfth Night is by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lynnea Benson. Choreography by Geneva Jenkins. Set and Costume Design by Asa Benally. Lighting Design by Dennis Parichy. Music Composer is Ted Zurkowski. Fight Choreographer is Marcus Watson. Stage Manager is Rafaella Rossi.
The cast is Jonathan Reed Wexler, Alyssa Diamond, Karoline Patrick, Kevin Hauver, Amy Frances Quint, Jamar Brathwaite, Steve Mazzoccone, Richard James Porter, Steven Ungar, Kyle Primack, John L. Payne, Dani Franco, Blake Kelton Prentiss, Shashwat Gupta, Martin Bodenheimer, and Daniel Garcia.