Ok kids, classically performed Shakespeare just won’t cut it anymore. The age of leggings, codpieces and feathered hats has been ushered out, and any modern Shakespearian production must find some way to slap a new coat of paint on the tradition. The Propeller Shakespeare Company has mounted more than a mere superficial update of the classic “Twelfth Night,” which opened Wednesday night at the Power Center in Ann Arbor. Propeller have added surprising elements at every turn; there is still the codpiece…but it’s studded….there are indeed leggings but this time they are bright yellow with fishnets. They add nuance where before there were only laughs, and shade where there was light.
“Twelfth Night” is a play about deception, whether of identity, emotion or trickery for the love of chaos. This flexible view of reality has bled into the masterful set design of the play: The set pieces morphed with each scene, folding and unfolding in a way that feels as if the stage has turned into a giant music box. This effect was deepened by (duh) the unexpected musicality of the evening. The most notable contribution was the beautiful voice of Liam O’Brian as Feste, whose Irish brogue was raucous and melancholy at turns. Propeller is an all-male company, and the cross dressing element was played for broad laughs. But this fact belies the real comedic chops of these blokes. Physical tussles and tumbles shared equal time with witticisms and quips; this is a comedy after all. But it was the deeper psychological elements of tension, derangement and sorrow that they teased out of Shakespeare’s words that set the production apart.
My companion for the evening made the point that when you are watching a really good story you can look upon it without any sound and still be fully tuned in to the plot. With the moody and atmospheric staging and the full physical commitment of the actors, whether lurching drunkenly, flirting coyly or doing a soft shoe routine the show was fully immersive. It surprises you with laughs and with profound sadness. I found when the boys came out for their bows that the world they created was a hard one to leave behind, so vivid had it been in its realization.