Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” an impeccable blend of merriment and melancholy that can be interpreted and staged in countless ways, has inspired Bedlam (a small troupe that has recently won acclaim for its intimate and imaginative productions of the classics) to present two different productions of the comedy at the same time.
One version goes by the play’s full title — “Twelfth Night (or What You Will)” — while the other reverses it — “What You Will (or Twelfth Night).” Each is streamlined (running about two hours without intermission) and performed by a five-member cast in a tiny black-box space with little scenery or costuming.
The actors play different characters in each version, with lots of cross-gender casting. For instance, the superb Andrus Nichols plays Duke Orsino and the gentlewoman Maria in “Twelfth Night” and Countess Olivia and Sir Toby in “What You Will.”
The first production (“Twelfth Night”) is a playful and breezy staging that still makes a point of accentuating the sorrow lurking within the text. I was particularly struck by the sexual intimacy shared between Nichols’ Olivia and Eric Tucker’s Toby. Edmund Lewis also gives an unusually sympathetic portrayal of the stuck-up Steward Malvolio.
“What You Will” is far more stylized, with repeated visual motifs (including red lipstick that gets smeared on the wall and white costumes) and a soundtrack of jazz and rhythm-and-blues standards. Lewis once again plays Malvolio but in a far more exaggerated manner. And in a novel twist, Susannah Millonzi and Tom O’Keefe play Viola (a woman pretending to be a man) together.
Someone with no familiarity with the play may have trouble understanding either production (especially in light of the multiple roles played by each actor, often in the same scene), and those who are may still see this as just a lively actor showcase.
You can’t help but wonder how many other variations on the play director Eric Tucker (who is also one of the actors) could come up with. But then again, it might be better to see the company tackle a new project in the months ahead.
If you go: “Twelfth Night” and “What You Will” play at the Dorothy Streslin Theatre through May 2. 312 W. 36th St. theatrebedlam.org.