Seasoned DC theatregoers know to 'expect the unexpected' when entering the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to view the latest Taffety Punk Theatre Company creation. Indeed, Michelle Shupe's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will is both expected and unexpected. Regular patrons of the company expect the ambitious troupe to make the traditional, untraditional. However, they might not expect that this adaptation of the well-known title features a few original rocking musical compositions, underwater scenes complete with an inflated orange fish, and a punk narrator. The end result is something that should be experienced. Par for the course, it also offers more than a few stellar acting performances.
In the DC area alone, we've seen more than our share of this tale of mistaken identities in recent years. Folger Theatre, well known for its interpretation of Shakespearean classics, has also included it in this season's lineup. In the Taffety adaptation, the story remains mostly the same. Twins Viola (Esther Williamson) and Sebastian (Dan Crane) are separated in a shipwreck. Viola assumes her brother is dead. When she is washed up on shore, she disguises herself as a man called Cesario, becomes a page to Duke Orsino (Ricardo Frederick Evans), and finds herself in the middle of a love triangle with the bold and flirty Olivia (Tonya Beckman). When Sebastian reemerges and their two stories intersect, there are more questions than answers.
Yet, in true Taffety fashion, there are twists. Good ones, I might add.
In Shupe's well-directed adaptation, the setting is the same - but not. Clues in the first few moments and in the final moments of the production - as well as an inflated fish, a colorful and enchanting set (Daniel Flint) comprised of sea plants, blue backgrounds, and the like - suggest that the bulk of the story played out here occurs as Viola is immersed in the water before she reaches the Illyrian shoreline. Still, she 'meets' the people of Illyria as one might expect throughout the course of the play. Does she dream about them? Do the dreams foreshadow what's to come when she finally does reach land? That seems to be what Shupe is going for, which is quite interesting and a bit daring.
Likewise, Feste (Kimberly Gilbert) still offers commentary on the world of Illyria and Violet's plight, but instead of being a comedic jokester she is a punk troubadour of sorts who represents Death. This fits in well with the notion that Violet is still fighting for her life in the water for a good portion of the play. At the same time, this twist on the known character brings a welcomed darker edge to a story that some (including myself) might find a bit too frothy. The decision to have her comment on the action through pop-rock songs (original compositions by Corliss Preston and John Slywka) as well as spoken monologues adds yet another dimension to the production.
The production, which is paced better in Act 1 than in Act 2, offers a few standout performances. Kimberly Gilbert offers a delightfully charismatic and confident take on Feste and, when tasked to voice her opinion on the situation in song, she rises to the occasion and can rock it out with the best of them. She's the glue that holds the show together. Tonya Beckman is diva-like and sassy as Olivia and she commands the stage like none other. While Esther Williamson has a far less showy role, she displays strong acting throughout and serves as a needed grounding force for the production. Ian Armstrong (Sir Toby Belch) also brings a bit of zaniness to a usually forgettable role and is ultimately very memorable.
In fact, the whole production is memorable. In a town where there seems to be a Shakespeare play going on nearly every month, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. Taffety dares to be different and it pays off.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including one intermission. Twelfth Night, or What You Will plays through February 23, 2013 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop - 545 7th Street SE in Washington, DC. Tickets ($10) can be purchased online.
Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane (Tonya Beckman as Olivia, Esther Williamson as Viola and Ricardo Frederick Evans as Orsino pictured).