by David Fuller · August 12, 2014
One of the many joys of the New York International Fringe Festival is the ability to explore various theater venues. The Loretto, a/k/a Venue #13 at this year’s Fringe, is a newly refurbished proscenium theater which is part of the Sheen Center, so newly re-done that you can still smell the paint.
Into this lovely space enters Twelfth Night, a Folk Musical, presented by Essential Theatre Group, in a pleasant but not especially enlightening version of the Shakespeare comedy. Directed by Tony Lance, Essential Theatre Group’s founder, the production moves along at a genial, folksy pace, interspersing the Bard’s heavily edited text with songs by composer Conly Basham (additional music is credited to Josh Freilich and Tim Liu) which are sung mostly by Basham, fellow company musician Lauren Wainwright, and cast members Christopher Grazul (also Fabian) and Adam Kampuris (also Feste). On brief occasions, Lauren Wiley as Olivia sings a bit and Kate Lydic as Viola sings a few lines. Otherwise, non-musician cast singing is left to bookend the show. This music has a nice folksy quality, self-accompanied with acoustical instruments. Yet the overall effect leaves the audience in a quandary. Just what was the purpose of the music and how does it add to Shakespeare’s celebrated story of misplaced love?
In this classic tale, Viola and Sebastian, fraternal twins, are separated at sea in a violent storm. Each survives, assuming the other is dead. Viola, disguised as a boy, comes to Duke Orsino’s court in Illyria, where she gains employment as Orsino’s servant to bring love epistles to his unrequited love, the Countess Olivia. Olivia will have nothing to do with Orsino, but falls smitten for Viola, who she thinks is the handsome Cesario. Viola herself falls for Orsino, setting up the triangle crux of the comedy. Naturally there is a Shakespearean subplot, here dealing with Olivia’s household, where her Puritan manservant Malvolio becomes the butt of a cruel, probably deserved, joke. There follows mistaken identity, a botched duel, love sparks anew and ultimately, (spoiler alert!) reconciliation and the proper pairing of couples. It is a fun, funny, satisfying story that has survived nearly five centuries of productions to remain an audience favorite.
Twelfth Night retains enough of the original to remain a pleasing two hours’ (almost) diversion. The staging is serviceable, though it appears to have been better served with a non-proscenium space, such as in-the-round, where the actors could relate naturally to each other, as there is too much talking with faces away from the audience on this stage. (This is the irony of the Fringe, where productions get very little time to spend in the space where they ultimately perform.) There are some fun touches, however, including Lance’s clever use of the two ubiquitous step ladders.
The cast performs with varyingly levels of ability. All are competent, though much of the show works only on a superficial level, merely hitting the comedic benchmarks. What would make this show soar would be stronger emotional underpinnings. There is an emotional undercurrent of the human condition in these characters that is now only rarely glimpsed here, mostly with the work of the twins, played by Kate Lydic and the excellent James Soller. Perhaps with the playing, as this reviewer saw their first performance, the meanings will deepen.
Meantime, there is the matter of the music. Considered apart, the music is fun and the play is fun. Taken together, it is hard to see how one enhances the other.