Wind and rain launch Grottesco’s 12th Night, Theater Grottesco’s visionary transformation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. Signaling the primacy of mood, image and atmosphere over narrative, Duke Orsino’s proclamations of love for Lady Olivia vie with the storm. The Duke and Olivia are separated by the vast, roiling waves. Olivia dances her grief but the Duke’s obsession mistakes inconsolable loss for radiance. The storm is at once alarming and hilariously stagy, encapsulating the overall conception of the production.

Shakespeare’s comedies lean heavily on the shenanigans of the rich. Twelfth Night is squarely in this tradition, depicting the luxuries of courtly love, the trappings of great estates and the festival atmosphere of The Epiphany. The central tension emerges from thwarted unions and reunions of well-funded and well-fed nobles blessed with all the time in the world to make utter fools of themselves. In the end, each volatile and mercurial lover pairs off, the
dissonance evaporates and the bottomless torment (and trivia) of missed opportunity and mistaken identity are resolved in the blink of an eye.

Grottesco’s 12th Night unravels underneath all of that, in servants’ quarters, the kitchen, the barn and outside the niceties of nobility. Flickers of the Duke and Olivia, Malvolio (here a woman named Malvia), Viola and Cesario flash like lightning across the stage. Mostly, the upper class powers that be are felt in their utter absence. Left to themselves, the servants await news from above, act out parts of Shakespeare’s original script, steal food, plot revenge, stare one another down, get drunk and get laid.

Theater Grottesco aims for true ensemble work. In this production, the company achieves rare cohesion, manages a magical synchronicity and lends the piece the feel of a well-choreographed ballet. While Shakespeare’s texts, which offer a feast of language, take center stage in most productions, Grottesco’s version relegates language to a role of skeleton. Dance, slapstick, exaggerated clowning, costume and the seemingly infinite plasticity of the bodies and voices onstage usurp denotation.

All of the performers enjoy spectacular turns as they emerge from the ensemble. Rod Harrison is irrepressible as lecher, drunk, liar and Duke. Kate Kita shifts effortlessly from acidulous servant to wild Olivia. Aimée Lasseigne commands the stage even as she morphs instantly from servile non-entity into Viola. Mona Malec captures the combined desperation and authority of a cook during high feast time in a realm with no food. Director John Flax’s (disclaimer: Flax recently performed in an improvised opera directed by Breslin, performed at the High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival) Feste ambles through a land stripped bare of pomp to skewer, sad and bitter without a Shakespearean fool’s sole purpose. Joy Mills’ Malvia embodies moralistic social conservatism, a laughable counterweight to the surrounding utter dissolution. A standout among them all: Charles Gamble, whose stammering barn hand provides pathos and painful humor. Gamble’s Fight Club scene as both Duke and hapless caretaker of the Duke’s escaped horses is a masterful achievement.

Similarly stunning: the set design by Patrick Mehaffy, lighting by Ian Rosenkranz and evocative sound design by JA Deane, as well as the remarkable choreography of Elizabeth Wiseman and Sylvie Obledo’s perfect Pulcinella-style costumes.

Leave your First Folio at the door. As Grottesco’s 12th Night unfolds, Shakespeare’s original becomes increasingly irrelevant. The production is finally a self-contained story with no bearing on Twelfth Night. The audience, along with the servants, is left without a script, without resolution and without so much as a hint of what will happen next.

Grottesco’s 12th Night
Directed by John Flax
With Rod Harrison, Kate Kita, Aimée Lasseigne, Mona Malec, John Flax, Joy Mills and Charles Gamble
8 pm, Thursday, Oct. 2
Pay what you wish
8 pm, Friday-Sunday, Oct. 3-5

Stieren Hall at the Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285
7 miles north of Santa Fe