Filter Theatre's 'Twelfth Night' pushes boundaries of theater

by Mac Emery | 1/19/16 6:02pm

Often in theater a web of conventions, precedents, proprieties and restrictions surrounds the stage. This holds especially true with the exalted works of William Shakespeare, which have been marbleized by centuries of prestige. British stage company Filter Theatre crashed through that web in their raucous, heady rendition of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (1602) last Friday and Saturday.

Arriving at Moore Theater, newcomers might have worried they had accidentally stumbled upon a garage band jam session after seeing the tangle of wires, instruments, computers and people that cluttered the stage. A fully installed drum kit and an electronic soundboard generated as much puzzlement as interest. The actors, dressed normally if not sloppily, milled around idly as if converging around the stage by coincidence.

Just as the audience sorted into their seats, the company launched into an unannounced, unexplained musical romp. A few actors ripped away at their instruments; another performer wildly bounced around the stage and through the crowd, gesticulating with a flamboyance more typically associated with the hard rock milieu. The distorted, brash music announced what the crowd already suspected — that Filter Theatre was tackling Shakespeare on its own terms.

With the audience disconcerted and more than a little curious, the play began in earnest. Which for the risibly self-aware company meant that the play’s power figure, Orsino, intentionally fumbled through the iconic first lines of the play, then drowned out his blunder with yet another techno-rock outburst.

The play (eventually) proceeded to the core plot of identity and gender confusion between Orsino, the lady Olivia and the cross-dressed Viola. By condensing the original material and liberally stirring in their own madcap gags, the company fermented comedic alchemy that bubbled for the play’s entire duration. Leaping far beyond textual dictations, Filter Theatre relentlessly interspersed outbursts of music and hilarity that flouted any prior interpretation of the famous comedy.

“I love devised work. I love the process they used to create this work,” theater professor Jamie Horton said. “[It’s] irreverent, engaging.”

The entire subplot of Malvolio, a prissy servant with aspirations to marry his way up the social ladder, was entirely restructured into a hilariously humiliating fantasy crashing before our eyes. The entirety is too outrageous to describe briefly, but involves a hearty serving of golden underpants.

“I’m really impressed with the liberties they took,” Andrew Dewhurst ’16 said. “The way they modernized [the play].”

Underneath the play’s sturdy comedic core, the laughably sodden character Sir Toby Belch punctuated the action with his drunken rambling and interruptions. Though ironically the only character in period costume, the aptly named Belch wrecked any normalcy as he lumbered through scenes and into the audience, swigging his conspicuously modern beer cans and seemingly dragging any seriousness along with him. So forceful was the play’s comedic bend that for periods Belch seemed the central character of the production. But traditional, carping critiques of specific actors barely apply to a play that shuns such formality. Instead, the cast meshed seamlessly into one raucous unit, playing off each other’s oddities and never getting too caught up in their own deliveries. Instead, the delivery was mutually sharp and spontaneous, often resembling ad lib even when it wasn’t.

“I think the improv and the level of spontaneity was really what drove the show and kept the audience so engaged the entire time,” Claire Feuille ’18 said. “I know when you’re acting, like having someone improve on stage with you, is a really unique and awesome thing to have, because it changes the show every night for you, it makes your reactions more genuine, it makes the show unique each time you do it.”

Never too pretentious, the performance transpired almost exclusively outside the fourth wall and constantly invited the crowd to participate. With an amusing self-awareness, the actors cleverly roped the audience in and dissolved the typical screen between the ephemeral world of the performance and the real world. The actors jumped through the crowd, asked audience members for responses or clothes, tossed props into the sea of heads and even invited onlookers onto stage. A few lucky ones even got pizza.

“[It was] definitely different and refreshing,” audience member Ebenezer Sefah said. “One of the things I loved was how much they used the audience.”

The music was a force in itself, buoying the action and reasserting classic theater’s musicality that academia often chooses to sieve out. The early outpourings began by signaling the play’s nonconformity with its genre-less jamming, but by the play’s end the skillful mixture of electronics and live instrumentation was thoroughly winning and underscored the company’s diverse talents. One of the night’s highlights was essentially a sign-along in which the audience lobbed colorful balls at Velcro-helmeted performers on stage. Suitably, the performance was sometimes its most brilliant when it was most distant from the script.

“The way they brought in the audience and engaged them, and physically actually drew them into the story of the play was absolutely fantastic,” Annie Furman ’19 said. “[This was] Shakespeare in the most involving, engaging manner that I’ve ever seen.”

Ironically, by deviating from literal interpretation, the performance arguably resurrected the original anarchic and rambunctious atmosphere of the play, which it has since lost in centuries of reverent reiteration. This deviant freshness and approachability invigorated the audience and the crests of laughter only swelled as the night advanced.

“This show just opened my mind up to how Shakespeare can be played,” Laura Calderon ’19 said. “This wasn’t anything I ever expected. And what they did made it so easy to understand the text and the characters. It was fun and exciting. There were scenes where I was floored by how genius they were. It was just so creative. And you don’t see a lot of that when you see Shakespeare performed on stage, it’s very stoic, very traditional.”