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Twelfth Night — Pig Iron Theatre Company at Fringe Arts Theatre

TwelfthNightInside300Although the tone of Dan Rothenberg’s production of “Twelfth Night” for Pig Iron Theatre Company is festive and madcap, and although Rothenberg  gives Shakespeare’s comic characters full rein to revel, it is the plaintive, romantic scenes that make his staging special and endow it with spirit and heart.

      The more conventional and domesticated characters come to the forefront because they are so well acted and make their various cases so plainly. The riotous characters are entertaining, with Richard Ruiz delivering a piercingly intelligent Feste and Rothenberg  craftily casting Andy Paterson against type, and Shakespearean description, as Andrew Aguecheek, but it is the courtly contingent that illuminates Shakespeare’s ample and playful wit and provide the most fun in a production that is chock full of cleverness.

      Birgit Huppuch is an exciting Olivia, acting up a storm as a woman stirred from an obsequious mourning by a passion she doesn’t want to understand or control while reading Shakespeare’s lines in such a natural, conversational way, you think the language was coolly contemporary and akin to the way Huppuch speaks all the time. Huppuch’s is a dazzling performance physically and verbally. It is intensely comic while remaining totally realistic. At her most extreme, with Olivia practically lunging at Cesario with lust, Huppuch manages to maintain her character’s dignity. Poise peeks through the ardor. Olivia remains a lady, the grandest dame in Illyria, while Huppuch gives a display of a woman so in love, she is willing to risk nobility, dignity, poise, and ladylike manners to have one  moment’s countenance with Cesario’s lips and loins. It’s like watching Joan Crawford or Debra Winger attack the classics. Huppuch uses what Shakespeare gives her to the hilt and manages to be hilarious while preserving Olivia’s high tone.

      In casting the twins who are separated by a raging sea storm and rescued, unbeknownst to each other, by a pair of helpful sea captains, Rothenberg did the best job I have ever seen any director manage. Different chin and jaw lines and, of course, breasts aside, Kristen Sieh as Viola/Cesario and Charles Socarides as Sebastian have the same physicality. They move alike, they have similar build and posture, and you can see how people, without suspending all disbelief, may confuse one for the other.

       When Viola sheds her long, flowing locks and dons a false mustache to feign being male, she models her grooming and costume on Sebastian. Rothenberg wittily shows the resemblance the two have in a vaudeville-style mirror scene in which Viola turns to see herself as a man and encounters Sebastian looking back at her in the mirror. The touch is perfect and sets up, before we ever meet Sebastian, that Sieh and Socarides can be interchangeable to the unsuspecting.

      Next to this trio’s performances, the comics and clowns don’t have a chance to compete for center stage. Deft though they are, they are relegated to be the relief English teachers go on so about when crippling people’s appreciation of Shakespeare.

       Ruiz, Paterson, James Sugg, Charleigh E. Parker, Mark McCloughan, and Jaime Maseda do a fine job reveling and making a strong case for the perpetual proliferation of cakes and ale, but with the exception of Ruiz’s wise and philosophical Feste, you want their merriment to fleet by, so you can get back to Huppuch’s Olivia and her plotting to turn tables on Illyria’s duke and claim Cesario for her own, not as a servant but as a mate.

       Treading a middle ground, being the foil in scenes with the comics and out to impress and show his genteel manners to the noble folks, is Chris Thorn’s Malvolio, well-conceived to be pompous and ridiculous while maintaining enough acquired hauteur and headwaiter snobbery to be the fool Toby Belch and his cohorts take him to be while genuinely being better than them in behavior and outlook. Thorn calibrates his performance well. He shows how foolish and foppish Malvolio can be, or be made to be, along with conveying the pride and seriousness of office the head steward of a large estate should have. That he can do both simultaneously, in a single moment within a single scene, is the shrewd core of Thorn’s performance.

       The Pig Iron’s “Twelfth Night” is just plain fun with a knowing take on romance thrown in. Everything about the show makes you happy, including a pre-show concert by a talented band of musicians who enliven the new Fringe Arts Theatre, formerly a municipal water treatment plant, with klezmer joyfulness, then take their part in the play as accompanists and musical commentators. Violinist Marina Vishnyakova is particularly remarkable, her bow flying a mile a minute while her tone and rhythm remain impeccable.

       On Ian Guzzone’s flexible set, opulent Illyria is represented by well appointed and upholstered carpets and sofas while party-time Illyria has people trooping in an out of what looks like a basement door or making entrances and exits via a curved ramp. Ruiz, the actor who seems to have the most trouble negotiating the ramp, though it is low and comfortably angled, makes the best use of it by emerging from it on his side, elbow on the floor, with his hand propped under his ear, looking like nothing less than a chic soubrette about to do her torch song from the top of a piano. Socarides also uses the ramp to make an auspicious entrance during a duel he is having with Sir Toby.

       The entire Pig Iron cast makes excellent use of plots, staging devices, and Shakespeare’s language. Clarity reigns, and Rothenberg, knowing his actors will articulate and make plain the comedy and meaning in their scenes, gives a lot of license to the ensemble to be emphatic and playful in ways that turn out to be smart. Line readings are universally crisp and to the point. Few chances to elicit a laugh are missed, and while the acting is broad, it is never over the top to the extent of being hammy or bombastic, a statement that tells you just how deft the Pig Iron crew is in being expansive.

      Individual performances never cloud or dominate over ensemble work. Even Huppuch, Ruiz, and Thorn keep Pig Iron’s “Twelfth Night” a group effort.

      Richard Ruiz’s eyes are so bright and full of knowledge about life and human foibles as Feste. His readings convey the same assured intelligence. Feste may be a clown, but it is by family tradition he upholds by choice. He enjoys being a commentator and one has permission to tell the truth to Olivia, Duke Orsino, Sir Toby Belch, and others who have airs he can skewer. He is equally round with Cesario when he notices his smooth cheek and wishes him a beard. You can see all that Feste, using his keenly tuned five senses, observes and exposes in Ruiz’s nods and expressions. His eyes hone in on the truth, and Ruiz tells it plainly, having as congenial a way with Shakespeare’s words as Huppuch does.

      Though petite and pretty, Kristen Sieh counterfeits masculinity so well as Viola, you forget a woman is playing the role. Sieh gives swagger to Cesario’s walk, swagger that is similar to Socarides’s gait as Sebastian. She submerges her femininity so well, she may only need her glued-on mustache to mirror Sebastian. Everything about her speaks “spry youth.”  You can see why Duke Orsino, played by Dito van Reigersberg, is concerned about his attraction to Cesario, who he has taken on as a page.

       Sieh is a comely Cesario, but there’s one area in which the actress or Rothenberg takes Shakespeare’s text too far. Shakespeare repeatedly has people refer to Cesario as saucy, disrespectful, and even rude. Cesario has to be bold, but he, except for the storm would be gentleman and have upper class breeding. He also needs to be forward, but at times, Sieh seems more like a street kid than someone who would be pushy and forceful in courtier-like way. I liked her performance in general but was dismayed at times about how punkish she got and half expected her to hawk up some phlegm and spit it on the ground. Believe me, the objection is minor, but I note it for the record. Sieh is particularly good in the scenes in which she is accosted by Sir Andrew and challenged to a duel. Her befuddlement, diplomacy, and awkwardness seem sincere. She is moving in the scene when she realizes her brother is alive, taken for her, and in the room with her. Comic as Rothenberg’s production is in spirit, this scene elicited tears.

      Socarides is the most  noticeable Sebastian I have encountered, in terms of grabbing the important role the character has in the play. Usually, directors and actors toss off Sebastian as a minor figure, a plot device to wrap the proceedings and get everyone married to his or her satisfaction.

       Rothenberg gives Sebastian weight, and Socarides makes the most of his opportunity. Possibly because Sieh’s Viola is the one in disguise, Socarides can resemble his sister without seeming androgynous or self-conscious, as Sieh appropriately does in some scenes as Cesario. He comes on in full force when Sir Andrew, wanting another go at Cesario, encounters Sebastian by mistake. His alacrity at accompanying Olivia to the inner chambers of her mansion is fun to behold. Though confused, Socarides’s Sebastian has a look that says, “This is a bit of all right.” My favorite moment is when James Sugg as Toby accuses Sebastian of wrongdoing by pointing a finger at him and saying, “You, you, you,” after which Socarides mocks him by imitating him and making the “you, you, you” more threatening than attention-getting. The bit shows Sebastian has been around and can take care of himself.

      Andy Paterson is the total opposite of the Andrew Aguecheek Shakespeare describes. He is short while Andrew is supposed to be tall. He is not fat but full-bodied while Andrew is said to be reed thin. His hair is short and wavy while Andrew’s is clearly described as long, white blond, and like straw. Casting opposite to type not only makes life interesting at the Fringe Arts but has basis in the text. Among the things Toby says about Andrew is he speaks perfect French, yet when Cesario answers him in French, he doesn’t get it. Could it be that we are to take anything we hear about Sir Andrew as Toby’s invention? In this production, yes.

      Paterson plays Andrew with a deadpan that makes him seem more like a rich yokel who doesn’t understand life away from his burg than an silly fool. Oh, he’s that too, but in a benighted frat boy way.

       I enjoyed the frick and frack act by Mark McCloughan and Jaime Maseda, both playing Olivia’s servants and looking twin Rasputins or Smith Brothers, one with straight hair, the only with a natty pompadour that curls to one side. Charleigh E. Parker was a game Maria, larger than life and clever as well. James Sugg is like a new-age Toby Belch wearing tropical shirts and Don Johnsonesque suits while being in a perpetual drunken stupor a la Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow but more aware of situations and lighter on his feet. Dito van Reigersberg is a suave Duke in a handsome cream suit. His best moments are towards the end of the play when he realizes his affection for Cesario may not be alarming as he figured now that he knows he is Viola, a woman. Alex Torra does a good job as the sea captains who rescue the twins from otherwise certain death.

      The musicians spark the proceedings. They are always a welcome addition to the set. It’s even entertaining to watch the bass get his bulk and large instrument through a wide but low door on cue. Rosie Langabeer wrote and directed the always on target and entertainingly played music for the production. Working with her were Vishnyakova, Torra, Josh Machiz, Chad Brown, and Patrick Hughes. Kudos also to Olivera Gajic for the witty costumes from Feste’s rags and patches to Olivia’s 50s-style dresses and gowns, to Bret Cassidy for fight choreography that was alternatively funny and dashing as appropriate, and to Jon Carter for the wigs that made Cesario and Sebastian so identically twins.

       “Twelfth Night,” produced by Pig Iron Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, December 22, at the Fringe Arts Theatre, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard (Delaware Avenue and Race Street), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 215-413-1318 or going online to www.fringearts.ticketleap.com.

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