TWELFTH NIGHT (Pig Iron): Upends Expectations, Rights Shakespeare’s Play

Photo by Johanna Austin

Photo by Johanna Austin

David Patrick Stearns writes yet another petulant review, this time of Pig Iron’s TWELFTH NIGHT. If he whines enough that he isn’t entertained at theater and doesn’t get it, will experimental companies eventually rethink their artistic visions?

The obvious first question when it come to TWELFTH NIGHT is, why bother?

The play has been so wildly popular for the last seven or eight years that if you’ve missed out until now it hasn’t been for lack of opportunity. I’ve seen five productions since my college days, including the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s rather boring one two years ago and a traveling Kabuki version in London, based on a traditional Japanese adaptation which added many scenes and took quite a few out.

There’s even another production happening right now at Curio—though it’s unlikely that this one will be very traditional.

The answer to the unavoidable question is that, though the play is very often done, it is very infrequently done satisfactorily. Most productions handle it as “irreverent comedy” mixed with “lovely romance,” leaping and dancing for what laughs its often inaccessible punning provides.

Yet the comedy has two major challenges which are often unaddressed. First, the romantic twists at the end are at best unbelievable, at worst idiotic. Second, we are expected to accept the hugely unethical, bullying behavior of Toby Belch, Marian, and Feste as cute, fun and inconsequential, since these characters are normally portrayed as cartoonish and thus fun-loving and beyond questions of ethics.

Pig Iron’s take, despite having a half-pipe on stage, is pretty straightforward and true to Shakespeare’s script (despite Stearns’ crabbing). The characters wear modern clothes but still fight with swords; the play has no particular place or time, and there is no overt political point being made. Their focus is on telling the story in a way that makes sense today.

The climax becomes a wordless scene which never takes place in Shakespeare: the marriage between madman Sir Toby Belch and Maria. This is presented as a boundless bacchanal, resembles a Phillies World Series riot, and comes directly before the final confrontation. Belch and Maria, Andrew Aguecheek and Feste and the troupe of musicians flip over tables, upend a couch, run in circles and eventually collapse, drunk, to the floor.

What we are meant to understand is that this whirlwind is central to the entire plot, and is always going on, though not always visibly.

In the hands of wild-haired Pig Iron company member James Sugg, Belch is a 70’s burnout crazy uncle in pink blazer. His aspirated, unhinged laughter comes easily—it is his response to almost everything, as he takes absolutely nothing seriously. Never sober, he vacillates between drunk and too drunk to stand. This frayed instability, we learn, drives much of the play; he is the ghost at the heart of Olivia’s home/madhouse, driving everyone around him to further drunkenness and insanity. His eventual assault on Malvolio’s sanity takes on other levels of meaning than just bored bullying.

Feste, too, is not what we expect, and the production doesn’t want us to miss this. His first appearance is on a fairly dark stage with only Maria for company. He clomps onstage in his long, bulky winter coat, patched with duct tape, under bushy hair. His eyes are listless, he is silent for quite a while. Even those of us who have seen many iterations of the play peer at him and think, which character could this be?

The fool is often considered one of Shakespeare’s most ingenious characters, and in Richard Ruiz’s interpretation, he is bored.

This “most depressive Feste” that Stearns “ever [has] seen” is capable of much. He’ll do pretty much anything for a ducat or a good time, and his mercantile indifference mixed with nihilistic, intellectual dexterity takes a malicious tinge. Olivia’s manipulative, self-styled “corrupter of words” has perhaps more power and potential than anyone else in her household, and this has never been made more clear.

It would be criminal not to mention Chris Thorn, who plays a thoroughly entertaining Malvolio. A la Inspector Clouseau, Thorn fights for his respectability and poise despite the ridicule he inspires, all the way up to his his final promise of revenge, spoken while wrapped up in a rug to cover the shameful yellow stockings.

Most frequently the play—again, usually styled as fun-loving farce—ends with the full cast on-stage singing along with Feste’s “the wind and the rain,” even inviting the audience to join. Pig Iron, determined to upend our expectations, lets everyone but the four happy lovers and Feste himself leave before the song starts. Then, one by one, these four pour our their wine and exit, leaving a bare stage for the lights to go down on. [FringeArts, 140 N Columbus Blvd.] December 4-22, 2013. www.fringearts.com.

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.