Sunday, April 22, 2007

PLAY: WildBard's "Twelfe Night"

After seeing this rowdy and energetic production of Twelfe Night, the question I have is: are modern audiences ready for truly classic Shakespeare? We see heavily studied and processed performances, the result of careful studies of the text and based on years of experience and formal training. What WildBard does is to go back to the way Shakespeare's troupe was forced to act: ten different shows a week. According to WildBard, there wasn't enough time to learn lines, so they relied on miniature cue-cards and a stage prompter to get through the show. Of course, in Shakespeare's time, the language didn't need study -- as performed today, WildBard brings us full-body Shakespeare, played like an Olympic sport and filled with abrupt interpretations and unique line readings, fresh every night (just like the rotating cast).

The final assessment is that while the first act was entertaining, the overall performances were so far over-the-top that they ceased to be grounded in reality. They were also laden with asides that showcased the actors more than the roles, which is a perverse form of futurism that seems at odds with the classical nature we now associate with Shakespeare. Furthermore, while some actors wound up playing roles that came naturally to them (like this evening's Andrew and Viola), others came across as not just mediocre, but affected (Antonio and Sebastian played gay not to make a statement or to be true to the character, but for laughs that fall on deaf ears). For the actors who have vocal range or knacks for accents (like Maria's Irish brogue), such an evening of theater must be great fun. For the audience subjected to a series of off-the-cuff Shakespeare, it's really just hit-and-miss; bawd and bold, but no longer the bold bard.

It's appropriate that the subtitle of Twelfe Night is Or What You Will; WildBard has certainly done what they will with this show. Thankfully, of all the bard's plays, this is the one that most easily survives and adapts to these antics. The haste and sloppiness are subsumed, as they should be, by the strength of the language (a first folio usage), and if companies really train their voices and bodies, they'll have the endurance to make more than the first act a memorable evening of theater (the company petered out after intermission). Still, it's an old take on an old play, and it's surprising how hip and new such an idea can be.

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