For the Taffety Punk Company’s latest production of Twelfth Night, calling it by Shakespeare’s complete title makes the best sense, Twelfth Night or What you Will. You know something new and different is afoot from the very first minute. Taffety Punk is dedicated to making plays, music and drama accessible – both in price and content – to everyone. They are also unique because they work as an ensemble. Most members have been working together for years and it shows onstage.
To unpack Shakespeare for the modern audiences, they’ve put together a dreamlike, musical production unlike any I’ve seen. Viola (Esther Williamson) almost drowns at the beginning of the play and in this production, all of the rest of what happens may just be a dream while she’s trapped under the waves. For first-time director Michelle Shupe, a dream while drowning means bedecking everyone and everything in starfish, sea horses, and fishnets as they all party under the sea. The set by Daniel Flint is a conglomeration of fishing nets, seaweed, and blue. Lights by Brittany Diliberto turn the flotsam and jetsam into a magical world. The ensemble designed their costumes together for a modern, edgy collection of shipwreck survivors. Toby is especially brilliant in a fishnet shirt and doc martins.
The opening is a dance sequence with choreography by Erin F. Mitchell of the wrecking ship is pure poetry. Beyond that opening sinking, the under-the-sea setting doesn’t seem to have a major point, though it was a good excuse to wear fishnet and send a remote control fish floating around the stage. But that turned out to be a good thing because they never let the theatrics – a pink electric guitar and aforementioned giant fish notwithstanding – overwhelm the traditional text. It makes for the perfect blend of a fresh, slightly crazy adaptation of traditional Shakespeare.
And they are really good at Shakespeare. They speak the pentameter like it’s slang. There were a lot of lines I was half convinced I’ve never heard before, just because these guys finally took the time to exploit them. The director also adapted this herself and kept the pace up and every scene was funny. Watching this, I have come to the conclusion that Shakespeare had a pretty dirty mind and so does everybody else. The number of double entendres is truly impressive and the cast gleefully mines them all. They also get in a few unintended jabs at the bard. They delight in his wordplay but poke fun at the more ridiculous pieces of his plot. Yes of course, it makes complete sense that a girl who was just shipwrecked in a strange country would dress as a eunuch and or that a man who rescues a random dude from the ocean would love him, give him all his money, and follow him around. Of course!
Taffety Punk calls themselves a theater band and music plays a large role in the play, above and beyond the scripted role as “the food of love.” Toby sings a good portion of his lines and proves Shakespeare works really well as a rhythm and blues rant and also as heavy metal. Corliss Preston and John Slywka composed a soundtrack for the rest of the play and designed the sound and it enhanced the play. Part of Shakespeare’s point is how music is so suited to express the pining of lovers and they took that seriously, but again, it never crossed the line into a gimmick or a distraction.
For all the dancing and fishnet (and did I mention the giant fish?), the night really belongs to the ensemble. Esther Williamson (Viola) tap dances on a very thin line as a grieving, serious character in a comedy. Tonya Beckman (Olivia) is just hilarious. She has an awesome sense of timing and plays up the role for laughs when many actors would try and preserve their dignity.
Ricardo Frederick Evans (Duke Orsino) commands the stage. I also may never get out of my head the image Daniel Flint (Malvolio) in a wetsuit and yellow flippers. He manages to make that character both sympathetic and not pathetic, which not many actors can. Ian Armstrong (Sir Toby Belch) is flat out hilarious. From his ridiculous costume to his singing to every moment onstage, he makes Sir Toby into a force of nature. Everyone else onstage as well is strong, worked great together, and can pull off the bard, and it makes for a great night
Taffety Punk is an experience, a community, and a precious collection of artists who seem to respect and delight equally in our ancient traditions and modern taste…and a good double entendre. Twelfth Night or What you Will succeeds on every level – comedy, drama, and dream. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Twelfth Night or What You Will plays through February 23, 2013 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop — 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.