By Kimberly Lew

Forget groundhogs– it seems that the best indicator of the changing seasons is when Shakespeare begins emerging in all shapes and forms around the city. The Upper West Side alone hosts all sorts of summer Shakespeare fare, from Shakespeare in the Park to Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and the next few months already promise a few incarnations of classic plays from the bard in the neighborhood.

If you’re ready to get your Shakespeare on, Libra Theater Company just began its raucous 7-performance run of Twelfth Night at The Underground Lounge on West End Avenue and 107th Street. If the location, a bar/concert space, doesn’t already tip you off that this isn’t your typical theater experience, you might be in for a bit of a shock when you are accosted by an aggressively seductive Olivia or realize you are drinking the same beer as Sir Toby Belch. Fancy West London theater, this is not.

Still, Shakespeare’s famed story of cross-dressing, unrequited love, mistaken identity, and deception remains intact, adhering to an Old Globe sensibility with song, interactive merriment, and audience camaraderie. Moving at a razor-sharp clip and cut down to a 2 hour show with intermission, this production makes the language very accessible through deftly-executed physical comedy and free-wheeling improvisations from the cast. Because of the limitations of the space, sight lines may be obstructed at some points– but rarely is the action completely confined to the stage, so there are plenty of opportunities to be in the thick of the action.

For those who want to languish in the artistry of Shakespeare’s syntax, you may be better off elsewhere, as this interpretation focuses more on the comedic aspects of this screwball romantic comedy. Don’t expect Olivia to be too mired in mourning or for Malvolio to hold a grudge for long. But even with that said, the cast makes the production still feel very relevant and engaging by infusing their characters with a modern (without being timely) flare, and the comic, sometimes manic, interpretation really reminds you how clever and funny Shakespeare’s text originally was. The cast as a whole was talented, tackling the language with confidence and style. Ashley Grombol was wonderfully nuanced as Viola, and I think this is the first time I have ever found the characters of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek absolutely delightful with Jeremy Morse and Nick Moore playing their overgrown frat-boy parts for every last laugh.

This production also sets itself apart with its use of music, which is beautifully woven into the entire play. The entire cast joins in rousing harmonies and plays instruments, making the whole affair feel at times like a friendly jamboree. Composer Jeff Raab, who also plays Feste, has written some truly lovely tunes to accompany this show, and the skillful use of it throughout only enforces the idea of music as the food of love– essential and fulfilling.

So if you’re looking for a sophisticated, white-gloved night of theater, you might opt for another production of the bard’s work this summer. However, if you are looking for a laugh, Shakespeare-style, by all means, grab a beer and join the crowd at The Underground Lounge.

For the schedule fo performances this week see our calendar.

Photo via Libra Theater Company.

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