The Pig Iron Theatre Company's recent production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night could have been a nice test for this energetic and endlessly creative troupe, now in its 16th year. The play was its "first full-on engagement with a "'classic' script," according to its own description.
Pig Iron's Twelfth Night remained faithful to Shakespeare while still providing a new way of experiencing it. The stage included a skateboarding ramp, which was used for entrances and exits, as well as stage business such as retrieving stage props handed down from the platform above or sprawling to emphasize emotion.
The costumes ranged from the straightforward (the military cut of Cesario's jacket or the shapeless, filthy rags of the Fool) to a motley collection of pastel-colored suits, checkered jackets and argyle socks probably picked up at Suit Pants & Tie Corner at Third and Market streets.
Musicians as actors
Most of all, Pig Iron elevated a background presence— the musicians— into a full character. As many as six players— on horns, percussion and strings—paraded across stage throughout the performance, taking part in the dialogue (through their instruments and, at times, their grunts), and making unexpected entrances through the various doors and curtains.
Their musical output seemed an indefinable mix of klezmer, jazz and Tin Pan Alley— never modest but always expressive, and consequently highly appropriate. (Twelfth Night is not a play of restraint, nor is restraint Pig Iron's forte.)
Gestures trump words
More important, however, was the acting in this production— not only, as Alaina Mabaso noted in an earlier BSR review, the way each actor thoroughly chiseled his or her role so that a distinct personality emerged, but also the way the characters acted together so that the play actually became a drama.
This cohesion was Pig Iron's genius. Two or more well-conceived characters may speak their lines clearly and accurately and feelingly to one another, and the audience will enjoy the conversation; but this Twelfth Night made these interchanges believable.
To me, that's real acting. A performance can be subtle, it can be over-the-top, but it must ring true. This one did, and the experience for the audience was transporting.
That sense of authenticity was one of Pig Iron's achievements with this familiar play. Another was the way the actors used gesture as much as words. They didn't speak fast, as Shakespeare is often heard in production, but prolonged the stage action through extended silences, employing only stage business to the point of maximum tension.
Seconds tick away
For example, the play opens with musicians playing, and then apparently pausing for Duke Orsino's first line: "If music be the food of love, play on." In Pig Iron's production, Dito van Reigersberg as Orsino entered, physically writhing in the throes of his unrequited love for Countess Olivia. He didn't merely have a pained expression on his face. His arms coiled, his legs thrashed, his torso seemed to want to wriggle out of his pale blue suit as though it were a hair shirt, he threw himself prostrate onto the skateboard ramp and buried his face into his arm.
All of this took many seconds, and the audience was left panting in this wordless interval to hear that opening line. We were scarcely aware of the musicians playing softly in the background until they stopped and Orsino, with a look of annoyance that seemed directed more to them than to the absent and cruelly unresponsive Olivia, spoke his line.
His timing was impeccable, because he drew a chuckle from the audience. I've never before heard a Twelfth Night audience so quickly drawn in emotionally as well as intellectually. Pig Iron had us in its grip and never let go.
Repeatedly in this production, seconds ticked away while characters looked at each other. For instance, Viola and Sebastian, seeing each other the first time since the shipwreck, each realized that the twin sibling hadn't drowned after all. They stared and stared across the stage, taking their own good time to take in the wonder, while the audience was riveted by their growing comprehension.
An inaudible gem
This slow pace was all the more effective because the play was such a well-known quantity. At one point, when Malvolio was unwittingly playing into the hands of the pranksters who used his overweening sense of status to embarrass him, Fabian, an attending gentleman and co-conspirator, commented, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
Unfortunately, Michael Sean McGuinness delivered this gem while walking upstage, and it seemed to get lost in the pandemonium of the moment; the only people laughing were my wife and I, seated on that side of the theater. Still, by dishing out improbability in heaps, Pig Iron makes theater more genuine.
Next month Pig Iron will open a two-year school for advanced performance training. As a youngster, I took acting classes and learned some basic skills: the practice of good diction and keen listening, ways to build and sustain a dramatic character. I loved it all, but I look at Pig Iron and see what could really happen when, along with acquiring techniques, the imagination is awakened. I can hardly wait for the first graduation exercises of that new program.♦
To read another review by Alaina Mabaso, click here.
To read a response, click here.