From Bedlam, a pair of inventive takes on ‘Twelfth Night’
CAMBRIDGE — An unquestionable high point of 2015 was the transfixing production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan’’ at Central Square Theater by the New York-based theater company known as Bedlam.
By the time this year draws to a close, it’s likely that Bedlam’s alternating versions at the same venue of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night’’ will occupy an equally exalted status in the memory.
Uproarious and visually spellbinding by turns, artfully stylized yet characterized throughout by a surging immediacy, both versions — “Twelfth Night’’ and “What You Will’’ — are presented by Nora Theatre Company and performed in rotating repertory by the same five-member cast.
The skilled quintet includes director Eric Tucker, Kelley Curran, Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, and Tom O’Keefe, all of whom play multiple roles. They bring Shakespeare’s play to life with a sheer joy in creation that proves infectious. Although the alternating productions could scarcely be more different in look and feel, each is exhilarating in its own way. Seldom has the verb form of the word “play’’ seemed more germane to a stage performance.
Familiarity with the characters and plot of “Twelfth Night’’ is helpful, though you’re still likely to experience moments of bewilderment. But there are times in the theater when getting lost is half the fun; when the more your head spins, the more deeply you’re able to see. This is one of those times.
A popular comedy that was performed by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on Boston Common in 2014 and on Broadway in 2013-14 in an acclaimed production starring Mark Rylance, “Twelfth Night’’ rests upon one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices: gender-swapping disguises that lead to mistaken identity, general confusion, and eventual clarity about who should be with whom. Bedlam further ups the ante by having the actors switch from one character to another, and one gender to another, including a scene when they toss hats back and forth to one another and instantly switch into the roles associated with the hats.
The story line is, of course, preposterous. But the language is rich and the ideas are deep, and Bedlam scants neither. After twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck near the coast of Illyria, with Viola presuming her brother dead, she disguises herself as a man and, using the name of Cesario, enters the service of Duke Orsino.
The duke, who believes himself madly in love with Countess Olivia, dispatches Cesario/Viola to further argue his case with the countess. That fair lady, however, becomes captivated by the messenger rather than the message: She falls in love with Cesario/Viola, who has herself fallen in love with the duke. (Unsurprisingly, given that the most famous line in “Twelfth Night’’ is “If music be the food of love, play on,’’ the Bedlam productions are heavy on song: accompanied by live guitar in “Twelfth Night,’’ and in recordings — Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield — in “What You Will’’).
Once those romantic complications lock satisfyingly into place, a subplot begins to unfold, more or less taking over the play. It revolves around Olivia’s pretentious, self-deluding steward, Malvolio and the elaborate and even sadistic prank perpetrated on him by Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle); Feste, her Fool; and a pair of servants, Maria and Fabian.
You don’t need to attend both Bedlam productions to enjoy either one of them, though it’s intriguing to see the differences in mood, style, emphasis, and interpretation. (They will be presented back to back on Saturdays.) “Twelfth Night’’ is the more informal of the two productions. With the cast in T-shirts and jeans and a set consisting of not much more than a rough-hewn table — the actors will eventually engage in a high-speed chase around that table while spouting verse — the vibe is that of a rehearsal we’ve just happened upon. The effect is to remind us that the only necessities for great theater are a playing space and committed performers. Tucker indulges in the occasional ad lib; when one character says of another that “He plays the viola de gamba,’’ Tucker confides to the audience: “I don’t know what that is.’’
“What You Will’’ finds the cast attired in stylish white outfits that will eventually be smeared, one by one, with blood. It’s an eerie image that brings to mind certain scenes from “Sleep No More,’’ the haunting adaptation of “Macbeth’’ by the British theater troupe Punchdrunk that was presented locally by the American Repertory Theater in 2009. There are times in “What You Will’’ when the actors are concealed by veils, or when they suddenly lie down on the floor and deliver their lines from that prone position, or shift to robotic slow-motion, or simply walk offstage and deliver their lines from behind the audience’s backs.
There is more, much more, and you don’t know what to expect from moment to moment. For adventurous theatergoers, this tasty double-dose of Shakespeare just might be the event of the summer.
TWELFTH NIGHT and WHAT YOU WILL
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Eric Tucker. Production by Bedlam, presented in rotating repertory by Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through July 10. Tickets: $20-$59, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org