Shakespeare and sea shanties are two of my favorite things, so when Fiasco Theater’s production of Twelfth Night opened with a rendition of the old clipper ship song “Marco Polo,” I was feeling pretty good about my evening. The cast sang all together as they staged the voyage interrupted by shipwreck that preceded the play’s opening scene. Crooning about “the fastest ship in all the world” — the Marco Polo was a three-masted clipper ship that sailed for the Black Ball Line in the 1850s and later wrecked off Prince Edward Island in 1883 — the cast sounded wonderfully cohesive. Sitting on one side of the thrust stage with a dozen St. John’s students, looking across at a dozen or so who’d made the trip downtown from Columbia U., we all felt in good hands.
For the first half of the production nearly every scene change was marked by a new shantey; I didn’t recognize all the songs, though I did catch the homeward bound capstan shantey, “Leave her, Johnny,” one of my favorites. Shanteys have a place in popular music today, but during the Age of Sail they were working songs, designed in their rhythm to help mariners bring their laboring bodies into unity. Certain songs matched certain tasks: a capstan shantey kept time while the crew hauled up a long anchor chain, and other songs were for furling, bunting, etc. Music served as a form of labor: a pretty good match for Twelfth Night, it seems to me, particularly in a production co-directed by Ben Steinfeld, the Fiasco regular who also played Feste and who in that role led the evening’s final song.
Fiasco Theater, one of several local companies made up in part of graduates of the fantastic MFA program at Brown / Trinity Rep in Providence, has been producing excellent Shakespearean and other plays since around 2012. I missed their much-praised Cymbeline, but enjoyed both Two Gentlemen of Verona and the uncharacteristically sympathetic Measure for Measure, both of which I saw in 2015.
Stand out performances in Twelfth Night included Andy Grotelueschen as a wonderfully disordered Sir Toby and Ben Steinfeld’s empathetic Feste. Especially in the comic sub-plot, I was struck by how affectionate the characters were with each other: in this version, Maria and Toby in particular seemed very much in accord and planning their marriage from their first scene together. The revelation of that marriage at the play’s end, which in Shakespeare’s text is given to Fabian, was re-assigned to Maria herself, and her evident pleasure in the announcement suggested that matrimony had been their plan all along. Malvolio’s torment felt excessive, but not haunting or mean-spirited. Even Feste’s melancholy songs, “Come away, death” and “The rain it raineth every day,” created a happy choral unity.
The most striking note of suffering in the play came early: Emily Young’s Viola spit out a mouthful of water as the “Marco Polo” chorus broke down into shipwreck. The brief emission of water from her mouth, just a splash really, lingered in my mind as she waited for time, not her, to untangle the complex plot of loss and reunification. The physical cost of salt water on human flesh?
Lots of other fun things in the production, including Paul Coffey’s intense Malvolio, which reminded me of his earlier portrayal of the Duke in Measure, and co-director Noah Brody’s winningly self-regarding Orsino.
Go see this one at the Classic Stage Company before it closes on Jan 6!