‘Tis a bawdy, hard-drinking, prankish play, Twelfth Night. If you’re American, it’s the Animal House of the Shakespearan canon. If you’re Serbian, it’s the Underground, in reference to Emir Kusturica’s immoderate, absurdist romp across modern Serbian history. The comparison won’t come readily to anyone who doesn’t know the film that won the 1995 Palme d’Or – a controversial celebration of gypsy culture and Serbian nationalism – but the film lends the defining inspiration for Pig Iron Theater Company’s production that is currently at Abrons Arts Center.
There isn’t much that is meant to make sense in Shakespeare’s comedy, which was written to celebrate a medieval inversion of high and low culture coinciding with the twelfth night of Christmas; Orsino pines excessively for Olivia who mourns just as unreasonably for her brother; Sir Toby is an intemperate partier and Maria an incorrigible trickster and both unleash extravagant suffering on the inordinately preening Malvolio, for starters. From Shakespeare’s apparent call to arms against propriety and restraint, Pig Iron has given itself carte blanche to mine Kusturica’s film for its aesthetic and to roll, literally, about in the play’s buffoonery, thanks to Maiko Matsushima’s sloping set.
Under the direction of Dan Rothenberg, Shakespeare’s text is played to maximum comic effect, with a forced hilarity. Dito van Reigersberg’s slouchy, strutting Orsino, for example, seems to have taken a wrong turn from Fashion Week. Amidst the excessive prancing and pouting, James Sugg shines as a permanently stiff, cowboy-junky Sir Toby, while Richard Ruiz’s depressive Feste lends a welcome hint of gravitas. The production’s unwitting stars are a six piece Romani-style band that keeps the camp humor on beat, even when it falls short, though not through lack of trying.