The most dynamic element of Two River Theater’s Twelfth Night occurs within the production’s first minute. Shakespeare’s greatest comedy opens with one of his greatest locutions: “If music be the food of love, play on.” But what music, exactly, does Duke Orsino demand continue?
Here, it is the indie-rock stylings of The Lobbyists, who provide a live soundtrack for the raucous, gender-bending, identity-muffling hijinks that ensue. Their shredding electric guitars and steady drum beats set the tone for director Sara Holdren’s vision of the play—a younger, less polished, slightly steampunk take on the Bard than you might normally find in a suburban regional theater. Members of the band also take up several of the smaller roles in the ensemble.
Plunging into the story
The musical interlude accompanies a skillful and stylish pantomime of the events leading up to the play’s commencement—namely, the shipwreck that leaves twins Viola and Sebastian presumed dead to each other, but actually both operating under different circumstances on the island of Illyria. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that Holdren and her artistic team (scenic designer Claire DeLiso, lighting designer Caitlin Smith Rapoport, costume designer Fabian Agullar, and sound designers Kate Marvin and Kathy Muruva) create an arresting image that plunges the audience headlong into the story.
The remainder of the production doesn’t quite live up to the excitement of its introductory moments. Holdren has a handle on the style she wants from her cast and crew, but she doesn’t quite succeed in tying the proceedings into a unified directorial vision. Isolated moments often seem like scene studies, with the actors still feeling their way into the roles; by the next moment, a new method is being tried out.
The result is a collection of performances that don’t coalesce. Hannah Rose Caton (Viola) and Richard Hollis (Malvolio) appear to be exploring a more traditionalist approach to the material, while Kurt Rhoads (Sir Toby Belch) and Luis Quintero (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) operate within the expected contemporary bawdiness of these characters. Joey McIntyre is slick and stageworthy as Orsino, but his sing-songy delivery suggests a desire to be in a true musical adaptation of this material.
Taken separately, each of these performances have positive qualities that might be well suited to several separate productions of this play. Yet among the principals, only Tommy Crawford’s Feste the Fool seems entirely in line with the overall mood Holdren is trying to create. Perhaps it’s no accident that Feste is assigned the most music in the script, or that Crawford is a core member of The Lobbyists. He performs his duties with a pleasing folksiness that recalls the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
Accessible, but not by sea
Holdren’s approach, while piecemeal, does foreground the language in an accessible, conversational manner, and keeps the storytelling lucid and easy to follow. If a goal of this production is to introduce Shakespearean performance to New Jersey schoolchildren, it is on strong footing.
Yet in the bleak midwinter, I longed to escape fully into the Mediterranean isles, but found this production often kept me at arm’s length. It’s not quite a shipwreck, but the proceedings are decidedly landlocked.
What, When, Where
Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sara Holdren. Through February 2, 2020, at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank, NJ. (732) 345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.
Two River Theater is a barrier-free building with assisted-listening devices, large print programs and accessible parking available at all performances. There will be an audio-described performance of Twelfth Night on Wednesday, January 29, at 1pm and an open-captioned performance on Saturday, February 1, at 3pm.