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Twelfth Night

A Dying Fall Leads to What You Will

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, February 23, 2013, front row left in box theater
Directed by Michelle Shupe

Olivia in black poses inside a large picture frame next to Viola (sitting on chair arm) and Orsino (sitting in chair); he has a guitar
Olivia (Tonya Beckman, in portrait), Viola (Esther Williamson), and Orsino (Ricardo Frederick Evans, with guitar). Photo by Teresa Castracana, Taffety Punk.

On its posters and programs, Taffety Punk presents this play's primary title, Twelfth Night, in small letters and jumps the font size fourfold for the play's subtitle, What You Will. Apparently director Michelle Shupe sees more merit in calling her production What You Will, and with a company as brazen as Taffety Punk, a collection of artists who never found a box they could think inside of, that might have boded for Shakespeare run amok.

Well, contextually, this What You Will does go places—specifically, undersea—no other Twelfth Night has likely gone. It also personifies the play's mortality motif in a key character. Yet, despite the constant presence of death, this production is full of life, a refreshing and consistently hilarious presentation of Twelfth Night that stays loyal to the text and homes its thematic focus on the true nature of the heroine at the play's center.

The production borrows its opening scene from The Tempest. Nine of the production's 10 characters are listed in the cast lineup as passengers or crew members who mime the splitting up of their ship and being flung into the sea. The twins, Viola and Sebastian, dance a pas de deux using a blue sheet as if they were "hold[ing] acquaintance with the waves" before being separated. This sequence ends with Viola sitting beside "Death, as Feste," as Kimberly Gilbert's character is identified in the cast list. It is to her Viola asks. "What country, friend, is this?" and Feste speaks the lines of the Captain for the rest of the scene (the play's first two scenes are swapped).

Gilbert plays Feste, aka Death, with ironic impishness in black sweater, fingerless gloves, and heavy eye shadow. She is the production's enigma. Many of the Fool's lines—and those she borrows from characters who have been cut in this production—that have to do with death Gilbert intones with meaningful emphasis. "But I will never die," Sir Toby Belch sings in the party scene, prompting Gilbert's Feste to round on him as if insulted: "Sir Toby, there you lie." Shakespeare may have intended Feste to be noting that Toby is telling a falsehood, but this Feste may also mean lie as in repose, as if Toby were already dead. Back in that opening dialogue when Viola hopes that Sebastian is "perchance…not drowned," Death as Feste looks askance at Viola. "It is perchance that you yourself were saved," Feste says, turning the Captain's mere observation into a dubious commentary on Viola's state of being.

The rest of the play is set under the sea. Except for Viola (as Cesario) and Sebastain—both dressed in casual wear with black vests—all of the other characters have nautical accessories: Orsino wears a shell-adorned sash, Olivia has a shell-encrusted tiara, Antonio has shells glued onto his pants and shoes, and Toby and Maria wear netting. Malvolio's steward's chain is a starfish, and when he approaches Olivia after being pranked with the letter, he dresses in a scuba diving suit with yellow stripes and cross-gartering on the fins. Orsino's throne and a large portrait frame are covered in barnacles and coral. Twice, a giant fish floats through the room, once during Viola's soliloquy, once during Sebastian's soliloquy.

Viola, and maybe Sebastian, too, seems to have actually drowned, and Illyria really is Elysium. They could also be in a near-death state, the only survivors from the shipwreck while the other passengers and crew already have become part of the sea. In the play's final scene, Feste's "whirligig of time" comment is moved back to be a response to, rather than a prompt for, Malvolio's promise to get his revenge, and after Gilbert gives her line a fatalistic reading, she leads Malvolio off stage. It's an obtuse piece of stage business, but what happens next is perfectly clear.

We'll get to that. First, we need to discuss just how exquisite a Twelfth Night this production is between Death's coming on at the beginning and going off at the end. The number of characters has been cut to 10: Fabian's part is scattered between Feste and Maria, the officer who arrests Antonio is a voice-over, the priest becomes a marriage license, and the various courtiers are totally dispensed with. The streamlined play gallops apace, which helps heighten its comedy. Death may be ever-present in the part of Feste—though Gilbert still plays the fool's jokes for laughs—but there's simply no time to worry and too much laughter for mourning.

Set in modern dress, this Twelfth Night plays like a dream state for Viola, as if she were Alice fallen down the rabbit hole. Esther Williamson plays her in an ever-present perplexity, and why not? A fish floats by. A full-length portrait of Olivia in Orsino's palace suddenly comes to life like a Hogwarts' painting and hands Viola a note that she then hands over to Orsino (his reading the letter replaces Curio in the text). Then there's the puzzling matter she encounters in the play itself: the "churlish messenger" who returns a ring from Olivia that Viola never gave her, a "devil" of a knight who inexplicably picks a fight with her, a rescuer who berates her for not knowing who he is, and when things cant get any crazier, she discovers she's somehow been married to Olivia and beaten Aguecheek and Toby. All this is on top of the emotional confusion of being in love with a man who loves a woman who loves her.

This perplexity manifests in the sharply played second meeting between Viola and Olivia. Williamson and Tonya Beckman, playing Olivia, turn the scene into a "Who's on first"–like riff, the two shooting lines back and forth but never quite meeting on the same wavelength. The joke would seem to be on Olivia, who has no idea that Cesario is really a woman, and Viola's obtuse admission that "I am not what I am" is a shared confidence with the audience. However, Beckman's Olivia is so smitten with Cesario and has such a queen-bee personality that the joke plays out in the bewilderment of Williamson's Viola, whose every statement Olivia twists into a testament of love. "I pity you," Viola says. "That's a degree to love," replies Olivia. Viola is exasperated. "No, not a grize," she says, "for 'tis a vulgar proof that very oft we pity enemies." Olivia responds as if this is the greatest news she's heard yet: "Why, then, methinks 'tis time to smile again." Viola can only look off toward the audience in disbelief. To Viola's ultimate hint, "I am not what I am," Beckman's Olivia literally brushes it away like a bothersome fly; "I would you were as I would have you be."

To call this Olivia spoiled, though, is too simple. Beckman's portrayal is sublime. She's picked up on the character's backstory that Shakespeare has given us; her Olivia has been a sheltered woman of great wealth, and her whole universe is herself. Everybody else are merely elements of her self-view. Kardashian-like, this Olivia treats life as an affectation, a show of mourning in the first part of the play dressed stylishly in dark-tone power pantsuit, a show of easy-pickings in the play's second half wearing a short, wrap-around red dress. In speaking Shakespeare's verse, Beckman is as expert as they come, and her line readings for Olivia unearth myriad new meanings with a change of inflexion here, an alteration of tone there. Her Olivia is Shakespearean virtuosity.

Similarly, Robert Leembruggen, making his Taffety Punk debut, brings his fine training in Shakespearean verse-speaking to the role of Antonio. His berating of Viola as the supposed Sebastian is symphonic. He also plays Antonio as a father figure to Sebastian. It's hard to get past the homosexual overtones in Shakespeare's portrayal of the former pirate, but with the age difference between Leembruggen and Dan Crane as Sebestian, their relationship is cast in a whole different light: by rescuing Sebastian, Antonio has a vested interest in the life he has saved.

Toby on left with Maria holding a large Jim Beam bottle snuggling against his neck
Sir Toby Belch (Ian Armstrong) and Maria (Jennifer Hopkins) devise a prank on Malvolio in the Taffety Punk production of Twelfth Night or What You WIll.The part of Fabian is cut from this production, so Maria takes over his part as Toby's sidekick in the gulling of Malvolio and in facilitating the non-duel between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the disguised Viola. Photo by Teresa Castracana, Taffety Punk.

Ian Armstrong plays Toby as an aging rocker; a Def Leppard roadie or wannabe. He literally rocks out, accompanying himself on electric guitar, as he and Feste turn "O Mistress Mine" into a power ballad and then roar through the subsequent snatches of songs. In black net muscle shirt, black jeans with a chain hanging on the hip, metal-studded wrist cuffs, stringy long hair, and tattooed arms, this Toby had outlived his time long before but continues reveling in it through drink, a lust for belligerence (three times he urges Aguecheek to challenge someone to a fight), and the affection of Maria. In Jennifer Hopkins' portrayal, Maria is as much a groupie to Toby as waiting woman to Olivia, and she matches Toby as an impetuous jokester. Her idea for the method of punking Malvolio comes to her as she speaks on stage rather than being a plot she had long considered, and she enthusiastically partners with Toby in the faux duel between Viola and Aguecheek. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jared Mercier) is a waistcoat-wearing geek, and Toby keeps him around as much for belittling sport as for mooching money off him.

Malvolio is no laughing matter for Toby; he's a hindrance to his desires. Daniel Flint plays the steward as ultraserious, and his meanness toward Toby and Maria comes from his strong sense of duty and godliness. His devotion to Olivia is twofold: It is his place in her household, and he harbors a secret love for her, a crush that he probably would confine to his fantasies if not for discovering the letter stuck in a bottle. Flint, however, gives a shading of psychiatric disturbance in Malvolio's mad scenes. He may not be mad in fact, but though he argues against the accusation that he is mad, he's not so certain of it himself. It makes sense: Malvolio so totally believes that the letter comes from Olivia that he would have no comprehension of how or why he came to be locked away in a dark cell just for carrying out the instructions in that letter. When he comes onstage for the final scene, Flint's Malvolio is a wreck, stammering in speech, bearing an aspect of confusion, humble in posture. It's a gripping performance, concluding with Death as Feste leading him off.

What happens next. Orsino (Ricardo Frederick Evans, whose passions know only extremes) formally proposes to Viola, and suddenly we are back at the catastrophe that opens the production. As the lights go blue, the other actors form a circle around Viola, and she seems caught in an eddy. But she breaks free and grabs ahold of Evans' (Orsino's?) hand on shore as the lights go white again. "What country, friend, is this?" Viola says again. She has, indeed, survived drowning, emerging from her near-death hallucination.

Director Shupe has made the play's subtext of mortality its exoskeleton. In doing so, she highlights the courage that forms the foundation of Viola's character. Twelfth Night has many parts, but its driving force is Viola's will to live. She will go to any and all measures—what you will—for the sake of survival, and so, apparently, will her brother. This may be a play with melancholic undertones, but it is foremost a play with optimistic overtones. Shupe and Taffety Punk put us into the state of dying in order to reveal this treasure of living.

Eric Minton
February 27, 2013

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