Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Afternoon in Bushwick: Rebellious Subjects Theatre Presents "Twelfth Night" at Goodbye Blue Monday

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play that we read in school, back in the spring of 1965 in Neil Berger's eighth grade English class at Meyer Levin J.H.S. 285, in preparation for seeing a professional production aimed at New York City students at Grady Technical High School in Sheepshead Bay.

It's still our favorite Shakespeare comedy, and we've taught it the past three springs in a row, the last two years at the fabulous School of Visual Arts and before that at Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix.

We've played excerpts from various versions of Twelfth Night for our classes: an animated 1992 joint Russian/British production for our SVA animation majors; the 1969 BBC-TV classic with Ralph Richardson, Joan Plowright and Alec Guinness; the 1996 film directed by Trevor Nunn, set in Victorian times, with Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, and Nigel Hawthorne; and the 2005 high-tech contemporary multicultural BBC-TV production with Parminder Nagra and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

In the summer of 1990 we went to a much-hyped, star-studded New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night at Central Park - set in turn-of-the-century Monte Carlo, it featured Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Gregory Hines, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Stephen Collins, Fisher Stevens and John Amos - that was truly awful. Our companions that night, author/literary agent Linda Konner - who was in our eighth grade class - and her boyfriend, the astute longtime Newark Star-Ledger theater critic Peter Felicia, walked out in the middle, but we held on out of cheapness. And we've probably seen half a dozen other productions of the play over the past thirty years.

Few were as memorable as the version we had the privilege of seeing this afternoon: the new Rebellious Subjects Theatre company's bold interactive production of Twelfth Night at Goodbye Blue Monday, Bushwick's own BoHo bar/coffee shop/live music venue on Broadway. It was incredibly good in every respect: acting, pacing, staging, and the wonderful accompanying music written by Jacob Wise, who performed brilliantly on clarinet (through family connections, we know that instrument better than any other) and percussion. He was accompanied onstage by Jessica Chen on piano and Joshua Morris on bass from further back in the space.

Via the B48 bus down Lorimer Street and the B46 down Broadway to Malcolm X Boulevard, we got to GBM about ten minutes before the starting time of 4 p.m. and found a seat at a front table by the raised stage. But the site-specific production roamed through all parts of the venue as its various subplots unfolded, and at one point Feste, the fool, handed us a kazoo to help make the midnight racket that would rouse the wrath of Malvolio and set the revenge subplot in motion, and we complied.

A young group of energetic performers, the cast included Tiffany Abercrombie, Kyle Dean Reinford, Lauren Ferebee, Ben Friesen, Stacy Jordan, Zak Kostro, Ed Malone, Tommy Nelms, Miguel Pinzon, Kyle Williams and Patrick Woodall. They all were funny, had good timing and moved effortlessly from space to space and between the various strands of the gender-bending comedy.

It's often hard for young American actors to be practiced in the rhythms of Shakespearean speech, but the cast performed admirably. We were a bit puzzled at first when the early part of the play cut out Viola's mourning her presumed drowned brother, but in the end that decision made sense in the highlighted text version that followed.

There are challenges in staging any play in an open space where people are coming in and going out, and yet we saw the actors respond expertly to a fussy toddler, three latecomers who'd clearly just walked in for an early evening drink, and people going to the bathroom. The production was as seamless as possible.

The standout performances came from a playful and seductive Feste (Patrick Woodall) with skillful singing performances, often a tricky thing to pull off; a Malvolio (Ed Malone) who managed to keep the balance between officiousness, silliness, and wronged indignation; a passionate, brave and heartbreaking Antonio (Miguel Pinzon); a lively and surprisingly smart Sir Toby Belch (Kyle Williams); and a Viola (Lauren Beth Ferebee) who seemed weirdly perky at first but whose insouciance proved winning as the play moved so quickly that it was hard to believe that two hours without intermission had elapsed.

Actors playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ben Friesen) and Maria (Stacy K Jordan)were good at doing comic business; Orsino (Tommy Nelms) and Sebastian (Zak Kostro) were played nicely as straight men who are a little slow in getting what's going on inside them and around them; and a first-rate Olivia (Tiffany Abercrombie) was sharper and saucier than the often dull interpretations actors give this role.

Melisa Annis' direction created a triumphant if understated production which bodes great things for the Rebellious Subjects. And Goodbye Blue Monday is always a pleasant place to hang out, whether there's a play, music, film, or nothing but sitting and staring at your glass as you get drunker.

We, of course, are teetotalers, but just because we are virtuous, that doesn't mean we don't expect others to enjoy their cakes and ale. But for us, this wonderful production was food and drink enough - at least till we got a slice of marinara pizza at Sal's on our way back home.


goodbye-blue-monday said...

here's where you can find them

goodbye blue monday!

ps - glad you had fun!

jake said...

Wow, thanks for the amazing review! It sure was a great and rewarding experience!

- Jake Wise

p.s. The pianist is Jessica Chen (instead of Chi).


Richard said...

Thanks, Jake, I actually had "Chen" first but I got some misinformation and combined that with a typo.

You're really a good musician.

mayi? said...

Thank you for your support and comments, they are very much appreciated.

The company and myself are currently planning the next production - we will keep you posted.

Many Thanks,

Melisa Annis