Baptized in a glorious shower of glitter and strobe lighting in the small, intimate space of the Abe Burrows Theater, the NYU Tisch Drama StageWorks production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night or What You Will” is captivating. A collaboration with the Built for Collapse theatre company, this rendition presents a profoundly new and revitalized production of Shakespeare’s classic comedy of disguise, mistaken identities and unexpected love triangles. Under the innovative direction of Built for Collapse artistic director and Tisch alum Sanaz Ghajar, the audience’s preconceived notions of the play are shattered, leaving “Twelfth Night” uninhibited by traditional theatrical boundaries.
The opening shipwreck scene is heralded by drowning the stage in turquoise light. A quartet of echoing female voices informs the barely-surviving Viola (junior An-Li Bogan) that she has landed in Illyria, home to Duke Orsino (senior Issa Best) and the woman he loves, Olivia (junior Chinara Hill), who refuses to marry anyone while in mourning for her deceased father and brother. Bogan portrays Viola with spunk and a dry sense of humor. She enters Orsino’s service disguised as a young man and slowly begins to fall in love with him. Entertained by Casio-playing cherubs and makeup-laden rock stars, the lovesick Orsino, portrayed with pining extravagance by Best, provides a first glance into the unconventional love story about to unfold.
As Viola is tasked with pleading Orsino’s case to the melancholy Olivia, she soon becomes infatuated with the disguised Viola instead of the duke. This ushers in another refreshing aspect of the production: an utter and unabashed embrace of the queer overtones in the original storyline. These sentiments are brought to the forefront with the inspired decision to have Malvolio (sophomore Lillian Brown), Olivia’s steward, played by a woman.
Brown portrays Malvolio with pride and confidence. As the victim of a cruel prank, she believes that Olivia loves her and goes to great pains to please her. These pains, including outrageous yellow stockings and matching lingerie, make a fool of the once straight-laced Malvolio. Her antics make the audience laugh as they wonder if — with Viola kissing both Olivia and Orsino -— Malvolio was not the only one deceived by love.
In a wonderful turn of events, all misunderstandings are ultimately cleared up with Shakespeare’s classic comedic skill. All save Malvolio get their happy endings, and the final scene is stolen by servant Fabian (junior Misha Brooks) in his side-splitting attempts to make sense of the characters’ complex emotions.
As the rest of the cast exits, Fabian, with the help of Feste (junior Mateo Correa), the insightful fool, tries to finish explaining the play. A neon sign, which simply reads “Feelings,” glows in the background. The audience, too, shares these feelings, as if coming down from some immeasurable high.
“Twelfth Night or What You Will” continues its run at the Abe Burrows Theater until Feb. 25.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 21 print edition.
Email Amanda Quinn at [email protected]