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In my experience, most Twelfth Night productions resolve into a poignant, folksy twilight: cast members who sing and play stringed instruments in addition to being Shakespearean actors immerse us in a tender, stirring ballad as the lights go down. This is usually what passes for “reimagined” Shakespeare (and trust me, they’re all “reimagined”), but at the Wilma, director Yury Urnov isn’t having it.
I won’t spoil the devices whereby a lucid, expansive MK Tuomanen plays both shipwrecked twins in this new staging, but Wilma audiences should know that this Twelfth Night is a hectic mashup of spoken-word night, cage match, yoga sesh, pool party, beach weekend, and orgy, with a dash of EDM rave, dramaturgical asides, and lightning-fast pop-culture insertions from The Wizard of Oz to the Backstreet Boys. And one inebriated merman.
In the words of the delighted and bewildered man sitting behind me, “what is happening?”
“As it was intended”?
In his director’s note, Urnov says, “I personally don’t believe it’s possible to stage a historic piece ‘as it was intended’ centuries ago—we really don’t know what was intended!” He’s right, and he brings a striking vision to this production, so even the purists need to just go with it.
I admit, it took me a little while to do so. Lindsay Smiling (Sir Toby Belch), Jered McLenigan (a hilariously piteous Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and a cheeky Suli Holum (Fabian, and other ensemble roles) bring an exhausting rowdiness, especially in their early scenes. But they keep the audience laughing throughout, particularly Smiling as he melts into ironic solicitude over the imprisoned Malvolio (Keith J. Conallen).
Ross Beschler’s surfer-dude Duke Orsino is as magnetic as he is buffoonish, and Brett Ashley Robinson’s Olivia brings a charming, urgent sincerity to the show’s otherwise over-the-top antics. Justin Jain turns on a dime in dual ensemble roles that enable Tuomanen to play both Viola and Sebastian in a deftly sliced-and-diced text. Campbell O’Hare balances impudence and heart as the pert and scheming Maria.
Krista Apple’s deadpan Feste totes electronic keyboards, providing tinny, funky beats that launch frequent musical numbers. As Olivia’s “corrupter of words,” Apple’s Feste quietly observes to Viola that “words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them”—a feeling familiar to anyone who follows US politics, and a decent justification for doing what you will with the words of Twelfth Night.
Distance and intimacy
Under Urnov’s direction, the characters barely seem to look at each other, declaiming instead to the audience as if their costars are projected there. This presentational style seems to ask whether any of us can relate to each other outside of our own performances of class and gender, questions central to the play. But it grows a bit tiring and disorienting, and I longed for more understated moments like Apple’s dialogue with Tuomanen, in which Feste tells Viola (as Cesario), “Who you are and what you would are out of my welkin.” Apple’s precise subtlety turns the line from a question into a freeing affirmation of Viola’s increasingly complicated sexual attractions and gender expression.
Urnov and the cast lean joyfully into every possible tryst in the script, and again, I won’t spoil what this production delivers, but suffice it to say that this is love and sex from an abundance mindset. The show touts gender and intimacy consultants Leo Mock and Abby Weissman, and I hope we see more of this work incorporated into our stages.
Coming damn close
A deceptively simple set by Misha Kachman features little more than an inflatable pool and a segmented pier (pulled around by white-clad stagehands), which the actors cavort across, between, and under. Lights by Thom Weaver and sound by Michael Kiley keep the energy going through frequent scene changes, and Kiley’s original music pulses effectively under the action, heightening the feelings without distracting from the language. Costumes by Ivania Stack are an impressively evolving array of garments and accessories that look straight out of a boardwalk souvenir shop. And Holum works a festooned bike-cart like an angler works the line, hooking not only the audience but her fellow cast members, who struggled not to crack on opening night.
After the curtain-call, the cast and Wilma leaders brought resident stage manager Patreshettarlini Adams onstage to celebrate her 100th production in her 27th season at the Wilma, presenting her with a plaque naming the Wilma’s booth in her honor. The audience, many of them crying along with Adams, gave her a standing ovation.
In an emotional impromptu speech, the longtime stage manager acknowledged her love for the work alongside the challenges that sometimes tempt her to change jobs. “If there was ever a moment where I said, ‘this is it!’, this one came damn close,” she said of Urnov’s Twelfth Night. As an audience member, I can see why, but it all comes together with rambunctious, unapologetic joy across the gender spectrum—a great ticket for Pride (and beyond: it’ll be available to stream on-demand from June 26-July 9, 2023).
What, When, Where
Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare, directed by Yury Urnov. $25-$49. Onstage through June 25, 2023, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia; streaming on-demand June 26-July 9, 2023. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
The Wilma is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Assisted listening devices are available at all performances. Open captioning and an audio describer will be available on Friday, June 23, at 7pm, and Saturday, June 24, at 2pm. Contact the box office for these or other needs. There will be a relaxed performance on Saturday, June 17, at 2pm. Visit the Wilma’s accessibility page for more info.
Masks are not required.
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