Pig Iron Theatre Company was fodder for Senator John McCain to ridicule last winter, when they received a government grant for “Chekhov Lizardbrain.” I guess the second part of the title was a little too close to home. Anyway, theatrical illiterates asside, the Philly troupe has legions of fans for their daringly theatrical, classically schooled, often inspired original productions.
For the second time they get to show their Shakespearean mettle and pig iron with a fine production of “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.”
Dan Rothenberg’s direction is literate and supple, highlighting a skilled and wily ensemble of Philly and New York based actors and the script featuring deft surgical changes making it delectable to contemporary ears.
Shakespeare’s story of a brother and sister who think they lost each other at sea wash up in the middle of overlapping amours. Lovers and fools, servants, troubadours, and drunks scheme for canoodles and all around fun.
Shakespeare intended this play to be accompanied with music — the opening line “If music be the food of love, play on” (ascribed here to Scott Greer who plays Festi, the fool) is given full reign with composer Rosie Langabeer’s truly inspired score, delivered by a band of carousing musicians who lurch in and out of scenes as part of the action.
Langabeer (who also scores for Ballet X) creates sumptuous ditties from ethno-Eastern European band bacchanalia — lusty musicales segue to baleful ballades.
Charleigh E. Parker as Maria, is full of slutty class and silky vocalese as a most knowing lady-in-waiting. James Sugg is just unhinged as the drunken Sir Toby, always gloriously over the top as he stumbles over everything except the lines.
Greer plays Festi with heartbreaking comic skill whether he is the dumpy lothario singing or tramp baring his belly proudly. Birgit Huppuch, mesmerizing in as Isabella for PIT in 2007, here is Olivia, the smitten Countess as giddy as Juliet is. Michael Sean McGuinness is fine as the effete, hapless butler who ends up in yellow tights and a watermelon helmet.
Susan Sanford’s Viola, a sweet drag king and serene in Bardian pathos is the mirror image of her brother whose paths of mistaken identity wreak gender mayhem. Blake Delong brings sweet brio as her brother Sebastian. He woos Olivia, even as he does not freak out at the advances of his sailor friend. In fact, the switched identities that suggest same-sex relationships are, as they should always have been, completely naturalized.
Oliveria Gadjic’s costume designs just keep giving against a distressed, grayish set by Maiko Matsushima with sharp-cut shadowy recesses and a balcony slide that is used to wonderful comic effect by the players.
Rothenberg’s scene construction, textual focus and pacing clicks like Big Ben. But most appealing is his letting this be a glorious actors’ play with this gold mine of a cast.