Presented by Filter Theatre Company in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sean Holmes
Music and Songs by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes
Presented at ArtsEmerson
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Boston, MA) Let’s start here: this ain’t your mama’s Twelfth Night.
Updated and invigorated with blithe touches of a modern beat, this is Twelfth Night remixed. If any of Shakespeare’s plays deserve such treatment, it’s Twelfth Night. Ah that age old tale of identical twins separated in a great ship wreck only to get caught up in the love-plays of nobility on a distant and exotic island where every inhabitant seems so wacky that they might actually be a cartoon character. There’s a lot to love in Twelfth Night with its ensemble cast, accessible language, physical comedy, and (of course) music. These reasons are the crux of why this show is performed so very frequently: high schools love it because it’s topical to teenagers (and has very few naughty bits… you know, except that one “C.U.N.T.” joke….), regional and summer stock theatres love it because it’s wacky and fun, and who doesn’t love a romping good time? But because so many theatres love performing it, we audiences don’t always love seeing it. The feeling of “it’s been done before” is perhaps best expressed by a mediocre production of Twelfth Night; mildly amusing, but hum-drum in its antics.
This is precisely why Filter Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night works so well. They’ve played fast and loose with the text: cutting basically the entire plot of the play (including almost all of Sebastian’s sub-plot, almost all of Orsino, and almost all of the mad house scene with Malvolio). This play is, in fact, cut so heavily that I would absolutely not recommend it to people who have never seen Twelfth Night before. I’m reasonably certain it would be nearly impossible to follow. However, that’s easily fixed: go rent the 1996 Trevor Nunn film (staring, by the way, Helena Bonham Carter before she was a dark witch) and you’ll have enough background with the show to get it.
Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night is an ode to any of us who have sat through one too many middling productions of this show. The story is told from a motley assortment of voices and sources: various instruments, electronics, actors chime in from all areas of the stage, even the audience is invited to participate. The cast, including the stage manager, remains onstage for almost the entirety of the performance and retires to chairs set alongside fully-laden onstage rehearsal tables when they are not speaking, singing, or otherwise participating in the action.
Because the script is cut so heavily, the company has plenty of room to make certain moments in Twelfth Night seem almost interminably long. The Caterwauling, for instance, went on (…and on… and on….) amusingly, for the most part, but was quite slow to start. While I appreciated some of this breathing space, I couldn’t help but fervently wonder at what cost it was bought. Maria, for instance, received the short end of the textual cutting stick; her part was sliced and diced to near obscurity to the point that we lost her wit and humor (and it would have worked so well in this production). Since Act 5 of Twelfth Night is such a tight piece of writing in its original form, this particular treatment takes that dramatic cohesion to the brink of insanity; rushed, a hodge-podge of elements falling into place in the most unlikely of ways not with Shakespeare’s grace, but rather with the Deus Ex Machina feeing of a vaudeville act bumping into the end of its allotted stage time.
For the most part, these are nit-picks. The entirety of the performance is enjoyable and delightful enough that I’d still recommend a trip downtown for any who are tired of stale Illyria. This production offers a new and vivacious take on Malvolio (Fergus O’Donnell), a Sir Toby Belch (Dan Poole) that borders on perfection, and a Sir Andrew that will be certain to capture your heart to make him “adored once too” (Harry Jardine).
On top of that, the boldness of this production is truly something to be admired. It takes a great deal of courage to create this kind of art; dispensing with tropes of Shakespeare past while embracing a fresh vivacity of Shakespeare future. These performers shake it off with a ferocity that Taylor Swift would envy; by the middle of the play, the stage is littered with the detritus of their joy: foam balls, hard candies, slices of pizza, Malvolio’s pants…. Sitting in the audience, you can’t help but be part of this celebration (actually literally; be ready for anything including a mid-show pizza party with real pizza).
Got catch Twelfth Night before it’s gone. It won’t bring a new, fresh understanding of the play to your literary mind; but it will bring a new, fresh understanding of Shakespeare to your heart. It’s fun, flirty, and frivolous; just what we all need when the New England winter has started to roar.