Any play with a character named "Sir Toby Belch" should leave you rolling in the aisles, but it's rare to see a production of Twelfth Night that actually brings this Shakespearean comedy to life. That is why the current production by Pig Iron Theatre Company is such a lovely and even magical night at the theatre. A combination of excellent design, wonderful Balkan-inspired music, and physically engaged actors has created a production that has a palpable energy.
As the audience filled into the Abrons Arts Center, the musicians, here known as The Only Band in Illyria, were already playing the kind of lively tunes that would continue to make appearances throughout the play. Director Dan Rothenberg has done an excellent job of integrating these musicians into the overall production. Part of this success is also due to Maiko Matsushima's playful set, which includes two levels and an inspired half-pipe design that allows for fluid movement.
Movement and physical aesthetics have long been a Pig Iron strong point. Founded in 1995, the Philadelphia based theatre company has always been interested in performing works that don't fall into the traditional categories or genres. According to their website, "Pig Iron calls itself a 'dance-clown-theatre ensemble.'" This is all readily evident in Twelfth Night, where the physical adeptness of the cast clearly shows training in movement and/or dance.
This is always a pleasure to watch, and here it gives the action a steady flow that is often missing in Shakespeare productions. Shakespeare ought to be entertaining (especially the comedies) because they ought to be fun to perform. Pig Iron illustrates this concept perfectly.
From Ditto van Reigersberg's first entrance as Orsino as the top of the play, the ridiculous lovelorn melancholy is immediately choreographed into a brilliant comic device. This theme continues through the play, especially in James Sugg's '70s Las Vegas style Toby Belch and Charleigh E. Parker's Maria, his wonderfully bold Vaudevillian straight-man. This pairing steals a great deal of the show and are at the center of a particularly raucous party-scene in the second act.
Of course, I must mention Kristen Sieh's Viola, which is the strongest performance in the part that I've ever seen. Viola is a difficult character because she is usually not believable as a man and most often doesn't look anything like her supposed "twin" Sebastian (here played by Charles Socarides). Rothenberg tips his hand early on as Sieh's Viola first admires herself dressed as a man (and supposedly looking just like her brother) by having her look into a "mirror" that is actually Socarides's Sebastian. Here we see the quite impressive effect of two actors who really could be fraternal twins. Sieh's performance of masculinity is also pretty convincing, and made all the more comically wonderful by the moments where she tries to make herself appear more masculine still.
I will say that this play provides one very troublesome problem in terms of staging that Pig Iron did not fully manage to solve: Malvolio's torture sequence. Malvolio, here played well by Chris Thorn, is a pretty obnoxious character, but the joke played on him is really quite extreme. While all the other characters have a happy ending, Malvolio ends up threatening revenge on all parties. Feste the fool, here played with somewhat more melancholy and less sharp wit than usual by Richard Ruiz, is perhaps part of the problem here. If we hate Malvolio and love to watch Feste be mean, this scene of Malvolio being tortured can almost work. But here that is not quite the case. I always feel a bit bad for Malvolio, who is simply uncool, square and misled.
The play is also a full three hours long, which is normal for a fuller Shakespeare production, though there are a few parts where a bit more time is taken than is needed. This is hardly noticeable though, and I remained actively engaged for the entire play, eager to see how Pig Iron would excite my eyes and ears next. So, if you're looking for a fun and funny night at the theatre, you should definitely head down to the Lower East Side and check out Twelfth Night.