nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 11, 2007
There are exciting things going on down at the South Street Seaport and I am not talking about the boat rides, fire-eaters, retail sales or exotic beers. The fish stalls have gone from Front Street but the arts are moving in. Many New Yorkers think of the Seaport as a tourist trap and a place to avoid. But this enclave is beginning to become a much-needed artists' mecca, in contrast to other Manhattan neighborhoods where the arts are being pushed out. Long a place where artists live, it is now morphing into a place for artists to work, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Seaport District Cultural Association. One of the latest entries into the fold is S-P-A-C-E Gallery on Front Street, where, in addition to some wonderful visual arts exhibits, its central gallery has been transformed into an intimate performing space for the inaugural season of the Seaport Summer Theatre Festival. Among the initial offerings of this festival is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by Festival Artistic Director Jeff Cohen.
The play is perhaps Shakespeare's best known comedy and the script is very tight. The story revolves around the main plot of Viola, who is shipwrecked in Illyria, where the reigning Duke Orsino pines for the unrequited love of the Countess Olivia. Viola insinuates herself into the court of the Duke, disguised as a boy, and serves as Orsino's messenger of love to Olivia. The Countess spurns the missives but falls for the messenger, which puts Viola in a real quandary, as she is in love with the Duke. In the meantime, Viola's twin brother Sebastian, whom she supposes dead in the wreck that had washed her ashore, arrives in Illyria, having been saved by a notorious pirate Antonio. Adding to the madness, Olivia's servants Maria and Fabian, her uncle Sir Toby Belch and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek get into some hilarious hijinks involving the taciturn Malvolio, aided and abetted by Olivia's fool Feste. Mistaken identity ensues, involving the look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian—but all is made right with a happy ending. Along the way Feste and his musicians offer songs, there are madcap chases, and a hilarious pseudo-swordfight.
The setting for the play is the two-story central gallery of S-P-A-C-E, chiefly comprised of an open stairway with landing and an audience level playing area. There is no specific scenic allusion to "Illyria" and that seems just fine—if anything, this Illyria is somewhere in the present, and the specifics are left to our imagination. Helping with this present day feel is the costume design by the triumvirate of Caitlin Buckius, Kat Martion and Rosalynd Darling: Orsino wears a suit, his court wears trousers, white shirts and ties; Olivia and her ladies wear versions of that evening mainstay, the "little black dress"; the comic characters wear costumes and colors "suiting" each character well. The lights by Tigre McMullen and Phil Mancino serve the production simply and appropriately.
Given all this, Cohen would seem to have chosen to keep the text supreme in his production and it is to his advantage, for his cast is exceptionally good at understanding Shakespeare's meaning (both surface and subtext) and conveying it to the audience. Frankly, it is a pleasure to watch these actors work and wonderful to see a cast that has no problems with the Shakespearean idiom. There are more than 20 in the cast, but to name some: Adam Hirsch is marvelously tortured as the lovesick Orsino; Mari Howells as Viola finds the right comic balance in a demanding role; Maxwell Zener as Sir Andrew is funny without losing the poignant humanity at his character's core; Stephen Largay's Sir Toby impressively commands the comic proceedings while allowing us glimpses into a life that isn't always fun and games. Jess Gavin (Feste) leads the musicians with his excellent guitar and voice, giving a fine rendition of Shakespeare's songs in compositions with an aptly contemporary pop feel. He trades quips and wisecracks with an obvious understanding of how to play a Shakesperean Fool. Margaret Nichols succeeds beautifully as Olivia, in what is perhaps the most difficult role in the play. Her particularly nuanced performance is a delight to watch.
Really, the whole production is a delight. A joy pervades the company in the playing, in the watching, in the singing, in the running about—madly dashing hither and yon (and up and down that staircase!). What a great addition to theatre down where the fishmongers used to dwell!