Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A fourth Twelfth Night

Instead of watching the State of the Union last night (or more accurately: instead of playing bar trivia, as that's what I would have been doing without these plans), last night Sam and I went to see the new version of Twelfth Night on Broadway. The tickets were a final birthday present from Sam (and so ends birthday month). Twelfth Night is arguably my favorite Shakespeare play, and without question my favorite of the comedies. I realized that this performance was the fourth time I'd seen it, in three different states, which also gives it the somewhat irrelevant distinction of "play I'm pretty sure I've seen more times than any other other one." I've thoroughly enjoyed every performance, and it's always nice to see a play a couple of times to compare the different treatments.
Malvolio and Olivia in Twelfth Night.
This particular performance was rather unique. As the New York Times described it in their review (I'm paraphrasing here because I'm too lazy to look it up), it's so hip because it's so regressive. The show along with its repertory counterpart Richard III, both transports from a version in London's Globe, was meant to recapture the original Shakespearean experience of Elizabethan England. The detail that went into this feat was truly incredible, and it really did seem to capture all of the bawdiness and audience interaction with the stage that was such an important part of Shakespearean theater. While the necessity of an indoor space in order to perform on Broadway did detract only slightly (along with the occasional anachronistic ambulance siren I could hear going by), everything about the performance added to the illusion.

The set was simple wooden facades and two story structures with benches were built on the stage to include seating for certain lucky patrons. I'm not sure how much more you had to pay for that experience, but I also think it should have come with turkey legs. There were also six metal chandeliers with real candles (they were lowered on ropes to allow lighting shortly before the play began). This particular detail seemed potentially hazardous as several times during the performance melting candles felt onto the stage. Nevertheless, that did add an extra bit of tension and danger (especially for the actors, I imagine!).

Another fun detail is that the actors got dressed and prepared on stage before the performance, which I assume was an early theater tradition. Aware of this, we arrived a half hour before the performance to observe the routine. The costumes themselves were very ornate and made of fabrics that were as close as possible to those available in Elizabethan England. Apparently they sourced special leather from some place in Montana and used only non synthetic fabrics that required extra care and cleaning for the costumes and wigs.

The acting was also top notch (especially Mark Rylance's Olivia). Naturally, as befits custom, all of the female characters were played by men. Of course knowing that female characters were played by men in Shakespeare's England is one thing, and seeing it played out is quite another. It's already a very silly play, but the cross dressing elements made it seems that much more farcical and changed how I viewed the female characters. I hadn't had any desire to see their version of Richard III, but I am sort of interested now. I would be curious to see how having men play female characters in a non-comedy would play out.

If I had one quibble about the play, it would be the music. One of my favorite things about Twelfth Night is the songs. While the songs themselves are written into the play, the music itself varies by production, and I definitely preferred some of the more lively interpretations from previous ones I've seen. For what it's worth the music in the Broadway production was nothing if not faithful to the time period. They had a lyre, a recorder, a hurdy gurdy, and any number of instruments whose names I don't know but whose dulcet tones immediately transported me to a Renaissance Faire. However, even the songs that were more upbeat lyrically, seemed somewhat somber. I guess it's more a personal preference on my part, but it was the one thing I preferred about the previous version I had seen.

All and all, it was an incredible night at the theater. Shakespeare has sort of felt like it's running my life as of late, as anyone who follows my business plans can attest, but there's certainly a reason his plays are performed in every possible setting, time period, and context. If you find yourself in New York before February 6, it's definitely worth checking out!

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