Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has a singing fool, mistaken identities, and an elaborate practical joke at its heart. What else could a romantic-triangle comedy possibly need? A Balkan band, you say? Then look no further, if that’s all you need to get happy at a classic play.
If you tried to build a production mainly around Twelfth Night‘s comic elements, it might look something like this version (now running at Abrons Arts Center), which Dan Rothenberg has directed with his Philadelphia ensemble Pig Iron.
Pig Iron formed in 1995 from a group of young LeCoq-schooled physical theater-makers, and in company-devised projects like Chekhov Lizardbrain and Hell Meets Henry Halfway, they’ve emphasized clowning and other forms to remake classics. (They’ve even rendered Measure for Measure as naked corpses in a morgue.) Their ambitions to stretch canonical material into fresh textures are admirable; too few groups reimagine those sources with any vigor. Twelfth Night, however, is an utterly conventional approach, intended more as crowd-pleaser than conceptual or physical derring-do.
That five-person band sets the right brassy note, pumping Balkan-inflected syncopated oompah into Shakespeare’s tale of loves lost, disguised, and discovered in the wake of a shipwreck. “The Only Band in Illyria” strikes up on a balcony, appears suddenly behind opened doors, and marches through scenes. The music-making is a nice device for underscoring the characters’ frequent flirtations with excess, but it’s used too fitfully: The production never quite pushes the tromboning — combined with the clowning and farce — into sustained confusion or overarching mania. (A late scene, when the company cuts loose to celebrate imminent nuptials, shows how pervasively wild things could have gotten.)
The staging mostly goes for moment-by-moment laughs, with a jokey, relentlessly indicated acting style that punches at each line but rarely trucks in poetic nuance. The uneven cast has a few standouts: James Sugg makes a memorably swaggering hipster of Sir Toby and Birgit Huppuch turns Olivia’s lovesick swoons amusingly neurotic.
Too often, though, the drama falls stagnant, a problem when so much is vested in tone and rhythm. But just as Duke Orsino (Dito van Reigersberg) staves off melancholy with song, the show temporarily wards off theatrical problems whenever the band comes trumpeting in. As the duke says, play on!