As a general rule, Constant Reader, I don’t review theatrical productions in these blog posts. Partly because it feels a little too insular, even by the insular standards of an arts professional’s blog – if you don’t happen to live here in New York City, the post Is liable to feel irrelevant to you. (More so than usual, even.) I’m also not a professional reviewer, though again, the relevance of that fact is questionable. But most importantly, if I were to start reviewing shows, I’d be reviewing people who are my current peers and colleagues. People I’m friends with. People I work with. People I’d like to work with in the future, in more prominent venues than I currently enjoy. The only reviews I could safely post, without burning all of my proverbial bridges, would be raves – and occasions for raves are few and far between.
I’m breaking this general rule of mine and posting a rave. The Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Twelfth Night is the best Shakespeare production I’ve seen in years. I realize I’m at risk of seeming like a shill here, since I worked with CTH for several years earlier in this century, but I don’t care. It’s possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s that good – the sort of good that makes you want to turn to every other production of the play you’ve seen, every version that’s fallen short, and scream, “why can’t you do what they did?! Look how easy it is to get it right!’
It’s not easy, of course – the kind of skill needed to pull off a great Shakespearean production never is. I know some of the actors in this piece – have known them since they were younger than any of us care to remember – and they’ve been honing their craft for twenty years and more. No, what I mean is that this production of Twelfth Night works, and works spectacularly, by means of the most basic, nuts-and-bolts method of all. The one that gets drilled into you in your introductory classes, which you promptly forget about because it’s so completely basic.
To trust, and serve, the story. That’s it.
Now, this production of Twelfth Night – wonderfully directed by Carl Cofield – is not “traditional” by any means. The overall aesthetic of this version of Illyria is vaguely Afro-Futurist, with a heavy dose of rave culture thrown in. Feste the clown, for instance, is reconfigured as a postmodern sort of R&B diva. But Feste’s songs are still Feste’s songs – the up-to-the-minute arrangements are settings of Shakespeare’s original lyrics, and arrangements which completely grasp their intent. The production understands the powderkegs of repressed sexuality its characters are sitting on – Malvolios suppressed longing for his mistress Olivia, Viola’s desperate attempt to hide her desires as she navigates this strange new world. Every modern touch of characterization – such as Andrew Aguecheek being a lone Caucasian in a largely African American cast, explicitly played as a clueless appropriator of modern “urban” culture – is rooted in what’s there in the text. All of the modern bells and whistles work terrifically – precisely because everything is grounded in a thorough understanding, and love, for the original.
And I’m harping on all of this because this should be the default approach we take in reviving the classics – and it’s not. Again, I’m not going to specify and review other productions because I’m hoping to get work as an actor again sometime this decade, but I’ve seen a number of shows of late – full productions, mind you, by talented folks at major institutions where you’d think there’d be some nice high standards- where those fundamentals simply weren’t there. Where there was no clear foundational understanding of the text, where the basic understandings of human nature underpinning the story seemed doubtful or askew, where timing was off or characterizations were overdone or some other factor undermined the work. And of course, that’s coming off of a protracted period where there haven’t been productions at all. And after a while, it’s only natural to begin to worry if these standards are attainable in the first place, if the secrets of making this kind of theatre have somehow been lost.
You begin to lose faith.
Well, cliché as it may be to say, my faith is restored. If you can get to Harlem, go see this.