Matthew roi Berger, Corinne Donly, Richard Douglass, Bill Griffin, Daliya Karnofsky, Cale Krise Melissa Lusk, Grace McLean, Hubert Poit-Dujour Jr., Matt Sadewitz, Robbie Collier Sublett, Brandon Uranowitz
These days, directors have all sorts of ideas for reinterpreting Shakespeare’s canon.
Some, like British director Rupert Goold, see Macbeth as a Soviet spy tale, as in last year’s production with Patrick Stewart.
Others, like Sam Mendes, want to intermingle accents, as in this spring’s The Winter’s Tale at BAM.
Still others, like Classic Stage Company’s Brian Kulick, are working in the service of a bold vision of a distinctly American approach to Shakespeare.
For each company, the style of its productions will inevitably evolve out of a sense of the participants’ particular strenghts.
For the New York Neo-Classical Ensemble, now presenting the comedy Twelfth Night at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row, many of the actors and creative team members are recent college grads, and their youth and vibrancy are reflected in their indie rock take on the Bard’s comedy of mistaken identities, one of Shakespeare’s most fun to watch.
The play at the production’s center remains intact, embellished by a punchy rock score by Matthew roi Berger, who also takes on the role of Sir Toby Belch in the production. The score is a bit of a mix between Spring Awakening and Hair, utilizing Shakespeare’s lyrics with aplomb, particularly during a doo-wop rock version of O Mistress Mine.
What’s impressive is that the company, under the direction of Stephen Stout, are willing to play with the material without stretching it to its breaking point. Thankfully, the cast never strive for an adherence to the “voice beautiful,” dignifying every line of text with a fanciful flourish of the tongue. They speak instead as a real people today would – if they chose to speak in Elizabethan vernacular.
Setting Twelfth Night, which concerns mistaken gender identity within two pairs of lovers, in a modern-day H&M sort of aesthetic does introduce some problems. It’s difficult to believe Viola would ever really have to cross-dress (wearing skinny jeans, baseball cap, and a white button-down) in order to serve Duke Orsino. But discrepancies like these are easily overlooked in the face of the company’s overarching strengths.
Several of the company members stand out from the bunch as particularly strong. Grace McLean as Viola imbues an easily disagreeable character with a sense of warmth and inner conflict. Bill Griffin as Malvolio is spritely and spirited as Malvolio, playing the character as a lanky, bespectacled geekster, complete with bright yellow cross-gartered skinny jeans. And as Feste, Brandon Uranowitz rocks it hobo-chic-style, dressed in vintage store rags and playing the fool character with restrained glee.
It’s fitting that the production ends with a dizzying dance party wedding, complete with a brief choreographic homage to Beyonce’s Single Ladies music video. To this ensemble, Shakespeare isn’t merely the name on a dusty row of books on the shelf; his works are a living, breathing organism. This production of Twelfth Night, humble in scale and brimming with youth and energy is far from perfect, but what it lacks in experience it makes up for in eagerness.