Gender bending on stage is as old as Greek tragedy where men played women's roles, and in masks. The policy held--without the masks--in Elizabethan theater. Indeed, it wasn't until Charles II took the throne that women played women. In the last century or so, it hasn't been uncommon for men to take on, for example, the role of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest.
Nevertheless, Bedlam is stretching the practice beyond previous boundaries with their latest undertaking, at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre. One of the company members has come up with--or more of them have come up with--the notion of doing William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will (which already includes cross-dressing) in two versions dubbed Twelfth Night, or What You Will and What You Will, or Twelfth Night.
Intriguing little conceit, no? It certainly is on paper, especially on any paper this creative troupe scribbles. In reality the two takes, offered alternately--with the same five-member cast doubling tripling and God-knows-whating in both--are partially inspired and partially problematic. The evenings are a matter of sometimes getting it refreshingly right and sometimes getting it embarrassingly wrong.
Although I saw the What You Will treatment before seeing the Twelfth Night treatment, I'll discuss them in reverse order for a reason that should become clear. Although the Bedlam Twelfth Night is performed in street clothes--and not on a street anywhere near Madison Avenue--with a worktable set on a diagonal in the middle of the playing area--it's a generally more traditional approach.
I hasten to add that "traditional" is used loosely here, since for this go-round Eric Tucker, the company artistic director who also directs both offerings, is Viola as well as Sebastian to Andrus Nichols's Orsino. That's right, those male-female roles are reversed, with Nichols taking off the wide-brimmed hat she wears as Orsino and tying on an apron to become Maria in a jiffy.
In Shakespeare's look at what transpires when Viola is shipwrecked on Illyria--thinking brother Sebastian has succumbed--she disguises herself as the male Cesario and right quick assumes the task of Orsino's messenger to Olivia (Susannah Millonzi) in quest of the lady's hand. Olivia, mourning her dead brother, falls for the imposter and, as anyone familiar with the comedy knows, a load of confusion ensues.
Caught up in it are Olivia's booze hound cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Tucker yet again), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Millonzi yet again), the fool Feste (Tom O'Keefe) and Maria, who's the one devising the letter-writing prank by which the rowdies think to get revenge on Olivia's martinet-ish equerry, Malvolio (Edmund Lewis).
Believe it or not, the quintet play it more or less straight-forwardly here--while frequently harmonizing on lyrics in the script and from time to time digressing to tunes O'Keefe and Ted Lewis concocted. That's even as they occasionally indulge in amusing hat-throwing bouts for character switching.
And now to the What You Will attack, which takes its cue from the titular phrase. Now, they deconstruct the play further. Tucker is Orsino and Millonzi and O'Keefe--this is the truly clever twist--serve interchangeably as Viola and Sebastian. Nichols is Olivia and Sir Toby. Lewis is again Malvolio. But it's really not the shifted parts that make the difference. It's a wilder go at the underlying confusion in the work itself and the disorientation to which it can lead.
The cast is dressed entirely in white (Valérie Thérese Bart the designer). But as the scenes pile one atop the other, the colors red and yellow (remember Malvolio thinks he's been summoned to Olivia wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings) are splashed not only on the compact spare set with its small floor and back wall but also on the clothes.
In a way, the Bedlam ensemble--surely living up to the name--deserves to be congratulated for the liberties they boldly take. But in the apparent thinking that Shakespeare can use some shaking up (pun intended), they sometimes compromise the venerable material.
Yes, it's a fun idea to have the men play women and vice versa, but as it's done here, the results aren't always optimum. In the Twelfth Night, Tucker (who maybe shouldn't be directing himself, or does he confer with his colleague?) makes a convincing Sebastian but is only so-so as Viola. Nichols is a terrific Maria but a fair-to-middling Orsino. (The thing about Nichols is that when she's well cast, she's as effective actress as there is in New York--those handsome features, the statuesque figure.) MIllonzi does better as both Olivia (although she doesn't seem to be grieving heavily), and as an Aguecheek with a slightly Southern accent). Because O'Keefe, also a deft guitarist, is only handed male roles, he rarely falters. And similar difficulties affect the What You Will assignments.
The one for whom the two-part event becomes a flashy showcase is Lewis. He does take on numerous other characters but all of them virtual numeraries. It's as Malvolio twice over that he's able to do something actors rarely get to demonstrate: giving two completely different, yet valid interpretations to a role. In the Twelfth Night, he's a serious servant looking out for his mistress and hoping he's right to think she's romantically drawn to him. In What You Will, he's the pompous fool easily gulled by his tormentors. Good for him.
Other ways in which Twelfth Night and What You Will is afflicted start with the use of only five actors. At times, they're jumping from one personage to another so rapidly that it's well nigh impossible for spectators to know who's talking and to whom. This is particularly troubling in the final scenes of both takes.
Then there are the consequences of the playfully fast tempo Tucker requires. The explanation for it is apparent: The actors want to keep it alive, vital, spirited. But there's a cost about which they don't seem to be aware. Sometimes they speak the speeches so trippingly on the tongue that they're tripping over them.
Even the line readings can be questionable. For one example, in both treatments the beautifully wrought lines Viola utters about unexpressed love feeding on a woman's "damask cheek," the word "damask cheek" is pronounced "da-Mask." Were the iambic pentameter followed, it would be rightly pronounced with the stress on the first syllable. A small lapse perhaps, but noticeable.
In the program's statement of company purpose, there's a sentence about the fun for them and the audience of "inciting laughter and chaos." There's nothing wrong with inciting laughter, but they might be advised to keep on a closer eye on the chaos.
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