When I first walked into the Lang Performing Arts Center this Sunday, I had to glance around to check if I was in the right place. My confusion mostly stemmed from the fact that I was looking at a mostly black set that contained a large ramp and a heavily-bearded Balkan band playing a host of instruments including an accordion and a trumpet. Having gone to watch what I thought would be a fairly traditional rendition of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, “Twelfth Night,” I was definitely a little surprised by Director Dan Rothenberg’s, founder of Pig Iron Theatre Company and Swarthmore class of 1995), take on the classic play.
Aptly named The Only Band in Illyria, the Balkan-style band didn’t stop playing when the dialogue began. Instead, the musicians made their way onstage, only to be interrupted by Duke Orsino’s first line: “If music be the food of love, play on!” And play on they did — in fact, the music continued throughout the performance, with the band orbiting the actors and establishing an almost constant presence onstage. Creating a festive and often raucous atmosphere, ‘The Only Band in Illyria’ often made ‘Twelfth Night’ seem more like a party than a play, complete with your resident rowdy drunk, Sir Toby Belch.
Almost perpetually intoxicated, Sir Toby introduced a good amount of physical humor to the play by stumbling around and disturbing the peace in the home of Duke Orsino’ s love interest, Olivia. Sir Toby and his friends were outrageously dressed throughout the performance, appearing in a collection of costumes ranging from pastel suits to argyle socks that only intensified the humor and contributed to the loud, colourful character of the play. Chris Thorn’s performance as the snarky turned lovestruck butler Malvolio was perfectly calibrated, and his attempt to craft the perfect smile before intermission left me both very amused and slightly distressed.
The humor of the side plot was well-balanced by the parallel romantic storyline, which involves Viola, who washes up on Illyria’s shores after a shipwreck in which she thinks she lost her brother – little does she know, he is alive and well on the other side of the city. Dressing as a man, Viola becomes the intermediary between Duke Orsino and Olivia. In typical Shakespearean fashion, Olivia falls in love with a disguised Viola, who in turn becomes infatuated with Duke Orsino. This main storyline helped provide a thoughtful, less physical texture to what would otherwise be a drunken revelry bordering on excess.
Rothenberg’s utilization of set was particularly striking, especially the ramp which became a slide, a perch and an entryway into the balcony upstairs. The ramp transformed scenes that had the potential to remain static into perfectly orchestrated dances. A dinner party scene for example, came alive with the servants at Olivia’s house running up onto the ramp and holding wine glasses aloft while grinning at the audience. Workshops and directed experimentation with the ramp, as well as other parts of the set, were key parts of preparing for “Twelfth Night.” Rothenberg described a challenge in attempting to find a “hinge point” where the director has to establish that the set was now fixed and finished.
For Rothenberg, the biggest question was finding a new way to visualize Shakespeare without deconstructing the play. For him, the introduction of elements of clown theatre, cabaret and dance informed this new interpretation of the play, resulting in what he labels a “wholly American” ‘Twelfth Night’. Formed in 1995 and based in Philadelphia, Pig Iron’s performances often involve these elements, and the Company deliberately attempts to avoid easy categorization.