Superb “Twelfth Night” Fights for Gay Rights in Iambic Pentameter

Review: Twelfth Night
by Joseph Conway

I stepped into the Access Theater in Tribeca, eagerly displaying an advertisement for Ripple Effect Artists’ production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and was immediately welcomed by its exceptionally friendly staff. Took my seat – quietly awaiting the show and enjoying the air conditioning – then came the lace gloves… the leather pants… the guy-liner… Michael Jackson playing over the radio… Welcome to 1987.


I like the 80s. It was an interesting and colorful point in American history! More importantly, it was a time of great importance for the LGBT community. Major shifts towards the emergence of a global gay culture emerged during this time, and nowhere is that better represented than in this 80s themed interpretation of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy of Twelfth Night.


IMG_1361.JPGToday, we deal with issues of marriage equality reaching the highest courts in the country. Director Beth Newberry has smartly chosen this play to convey a message of greater acceptance of LGBT lifestyles, without bludgeoning anyone over the head with her ideals. This takes the show beyond simple comedy and into a more relevant statement on the issue of separating love from gender. Sadly, the ending to Twelfth Night has everyone being perfectly heterosexual in the end. The end kind of sabotages the message a little, but that’s more the product of homosexuality being highly illegal in Shakespeare’s time than any fault of the directors.

As the show opens, there is absolutely no question as to the aesthetic costume designer Marcus Desion is going for. Out walks Count Orsino, played by none other than David Bowie himself… Or Paul Battiato. I couldn’t tell the difference. Either way, Pauls interpretation of the count gives the character considerable weight when we see him as less of a stuffy nobleman and more as an aloof celebrity figure.

That same celebrity cult of personality works well for Olivia, who’s 80s goth chic style IMG_1401.JPGseems to rub off on her sycophantic (albeit conniving) servant Maria. The countess Olivia herself is played by Kaelin Birkenhead with regality and gusto without seeming overblown. A sadly rare quality in many Shakespearian actors. Maria, on the other hand, has such rebellious fire and independence that it’s scarcely believable that she was a servant at all! This is hardly a criticism however, as Maria spends most of the play cooking up a plot to humiliate another servant, flirts heavily (and adeptly) with one of her Lady’s suitors, and then runs off to get married. Jessie Fahay’s interpretation of the character gives another welcome layer of sass to an already catty show.

But where would Twelfth Night be without the twins, Viola and Sebastian? Viola, played brilliantly by Erin Nelson, has the rare gift of being able to understand every line she speaks. The same can be said of most of the cast, really, but in the role of Viola, it is especially poignant. As an added bonus, she even looks like her “twin” brother Sebastian, played by James C. Stewart. Sadly, Sebastian is a fairly small role in the grand scheme of things, but James somehow manages to make his brief forays onto the stage memorable.

IMG_1313.JPGTheir first trip onto the stage was especially fantastic, with a shipwreck so wonderfully choreographed that I could practically feel the stage listing from side to side with the waves of a mighty ocean squall! This feat is made all the more impressive by having to play out on the fairly spartan stage, which stops just short of being a black box production. Thankfully the only time I really noticed the bare set was when a “jail cell” made of 2×4‘s was carried out onto the stage.


Now, Twelfth Night is a comedy, and comedies are supposed to be funny, right? While Shakespeare’s definition of “comedy” may be fairly loose by todays standards, Twelfth Night actually has a very funny script… If read by the right actors. Thankfully, Beth Newberry had the right actors at her disposal! Terrence Montgomery (Sir Toby), Kyle Sallee (Malvolio), and Robert Shryock (Feste the fool) form a trio of hilarity whenever they happen to be on stage. Toby’s constant drunken revelry, Malvolio’s dry razor wit, Feste’s classic and infectious charisma… It was a joy to watch each of them steal the spotlight. Even when said spotlight is stolen, the rest of the cast does not suffer. Andrew IMG_1326.JPGAguecheek, played by Chris Spurrier, is a role that needs to bounce energy off the rest of the cast for the sake of making such a boorish and uncouth character seem plausible. Outlandish as he may be, Chris succeeds in making the frat boy both humorous and prominent.

If I had any real criticisms, it would be that it’s fairly obvious that this is theater on a budget. The downtown location, the roughshod theater, multiple roles being filled by the same actor… It all serves to remind me that they don’t have the kind of funding they should have. Of course, even some of these criticisms can be abated. Joseph Esbenshade ends up playing four roles, all admirably of course, but it’s always quite clear that you’re looking at the same guy for each character. This may be because Curio, count Orsino’s flamboyantly gay manservant, is such an incredibly strong and recognizable personality for all his brief time on stage. Furthermore, I have to call into question the decision to use the song “Karma Chameleon” to open the second act. It was a good song, and it was performed very well, but it just seemed odd. Some of the characters had no business joining in (Malvolio on the sax? What?) and it just left me scratching my head. It was as if the entire cast had just decided they were going to show off before getting back to the show at hand.


Still, it didn’t detract from the show at all. In fact, the show as a whole was honestly fantastic! The whole of the cast knew how to deliver Shakespeare in a fluid, believable manner. On top of that, every performance is delivered with a decided style and flair that truly speaks of the talent at hand. There is also a very clear and positive message of acceptance and equality in Ripple Effects interpretation that avoids being heavy handed. The fact that such talented performers are confined to such a small theater is nothing short of criminal!


Joseph Conway is a classically trained actor and celebrated article writer and critic, quoted often and well for his reviews of operas.  

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