Bedlam Lives Up To It's Name With Insane(ly Good) 'As You Will' (5 Stars)
by Mike Hoban
‘What You Will’ – Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Eric Tucker; Scenic and Sound Design by Tucker; Lighting Design by Les Dickert; Costume Design by Valerie Therese Bart; Presented by Bedlam, at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge through July 10
If you are among those of us who have been eagerly awaiting the return of NYC-based theater troupe Bedlam to the Central Square Theater, let me say right up front that their two highly anticipated versions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (running in rep), are well worth the wait, no matter how lofty your expectations. At least that’s my take, based upon the performance of the second of the two productions, What You Will, which I recently had the immense pleasure of seeing (for more evidence, read Michele Markarian’s rave review of Twelfth Night here).
Like last year’s brilliant production of George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan (which copped IRNE Awards for Best Visiting Production and Best visiting Performer Andrus Nichols), What You Will is performed with a limited cast (five actors) playing multiple roles, with a spare, stark white set, a minimum of props, some sophisticated costuming and a surprising but ingenious musical background. In fact, the music (beginning with a Billie Holiday tune) was just one of the elements that transformed this imaginative Shakespeare production from a period comedy of disguise and mistaken identity to a kind of stylish Howard Hawks era screwball romp. This is Shakespeare for folks (like me) who often feel that it’s too much work deciphering the dialogue to wait for the payoff, and it is a tribute to the actors and director Eric Tucker (who also performs) who make the Bard’s work accessible for those of us who haven’t studied him at great length.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Twelfth Night is the tale of young adult twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are lost at sea. Viola washes up in the kingdom of Illyria and disguises herself as a young man (calling herself Cesario) so that she may work in the home of a nobleman named Orsino. Orsino loves Olivia, a beautiful noblewoman who will not accept suitors because she is mourning the loss of her brother. But Orsino is not the only one with the hots for Lady Olivia. She is also the target of the affections of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, drinking buddy to Olivia’s drunken sot of an uncle, Sir Toby, as well as Malvolio, the snooty steward of Olivia's household. Frustrated in his attempts to woo Olivia, Orsino sends his new servant to bring her his messages of affection – a la Cyrano de Bergerac – and not surprisingly, Olivia falls for Viola/Cesario. Oh, and did I mention that Viola/Cesario has fallen in love with Orsino? The players in this love triangle and the assorted other characters (Olivia’s court fool Feste and her diabolically clever lady in waiting Maria) make for a mildly confusing but very funny night of theater.
What makes this production so exceptional, other than the complete transformation of the setting, attire and mannerisms (that could have easily been inspired by The Philadelphia Story), is the acting. The male Bedlam players (Tucker, Tom O’Keefe and Edmund Lewis) are the same as from last year’s production of St. Joan, but Nichols has been replaced by two exceptional young actresses, Kelley Curran and Susannah Millonzi. All five actors play multiple roles without costume change, adding only a cigarette, hat or glasses to alter their physical appearance to differentiate the characters. But the ability of the cast to switch from one fully realized portrayal to another – sometimes in the same scene, multiple times – is stunning.
Curran, dressed in a flattering white 50’s style cocktail dress, plays not only the lovely Olivia but the boozy Sir Toby, and appears to be channeling Joan Crawford both attitudinally and physically for both roles, odd as that may seem. Millonzi plays Viola/Cesario with a kind of graceful innocence, but also provides an insanely hilarious turn as the scheming Maria, adopting the persona of an anal retentive nerd as she devises a plot to destroy the obnoxious Malvolio. The characterization is so unlike anything one would expect to find in Shakespeare, so over the top, that the audience loses it every time she begins to open her mouth. The male cast members are equally good, with O’Keefe harassing the other players with callous glee as Olivia’s fool as well as playing the earnest Sebastian; Tucker as the eminently punchable embodiment of every country club preppy stereotype who ever existed and Orsino; and Lewis as the haughty, then pitiable Malvolio (and also Antonio, who rescues Sebastian).
There was some symbolism that went right over my head with some blood that ended up all over the pristine set and the characters, but it certainly looked cool, and added to the mood provided by the background music (provided by an old fashioned record player). One note of caution, however. It might be wise to hit the Sparknotes (or heaven forbid, read the actual text) before attending, unless you are intimately familiar with the material. I saw Twelfth Night at Emerson Stage over the winter and thought I knew the story, but felt lost at times (especially initially) as I tried to remember the characters and multiple plotlines. That being said, this is ‘don’t miss’ theater, even for Shakespeare-phobes like me. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/bedlams-what-you-will/