The A.R.T.’s and the OBERON’s The Donkey Show is old news; while a refreshing and imaginative retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when it premiered in Boston in 2009, and though the appeal has not worn-off completely, the production is on its way out the door. In its place, the Boston theatre scene demands something as catchy and artistically challenging (Note: I use challenging in the sense that it defies the stereotypes of a typical theatrical performance). My hope is that Touch Performance Art and the OBERON New Works Series latest remix of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the music of your favorite boy bands, SEXYBACK or what you will, will fill this much-needed void, pushing the boundaries and limits of how we think about performance art and “mainstream” theatre in the 21st century. To get there, however, SEXYBACK offers much promise, but needs a solid summer of revisions and refocus to get its sexy on for the fall.
SEXYBACK is relatively faithful to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, offering few (but welcome) surprises for patrons familiar with the source material. Twelfth Night follows the ship-wrecked (now, car-wrecked?) Viola (Blake Zolfo) as she is alone and abandoned in the strange island (town?) of Illyria, where she learns that she must dress as a male page for her own protection, thus, becoming Cesario, the handsome young man. The love-struck Duke Orsino (here, Duke Justin, as homage to the great Justin Timberlake of the *NSYNC days) (Tyler Catanella) hires Viola/Cesario as his page, predominately to woo the mourning Countess Olivia (here, Lady Olivia) (Thomas René, played in drag). Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario, who has fallen in love with Duke Orsino, creating a delightful love triangle. As a wickedly funny side plot, the foppish steward to Olivia, Malvolio (Jacob Sherburn) is the victim of an equally wicked (but delightful) trick by Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (here, simply Sir Toby) (Anthony Masters); Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria (pronounced MAH-RI-AH) (Levin Valayil, played in drag); and a friend of Sir Toby’s, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (here, combined with Feste, the clown, and Fabian, a servant, to become the Fool) (Troy Barboza). The stories are (mostly) resolved with merriment and comedy as identities are revealed and stories explained. Like a true Shakespearean comedy, the play ends in dancing and reveling.
And with this noted convention, SEXYBACK finds its rhythm. Using the music and inspiration of our boy band (and a few of our favorite female late ‘90s and early ’00 girls), SEXYBACK weaves the Twelfth Night narrative together through song and dance. OBERON provides the perfect space for the endeavor, intimate and immersive staging while giving the actors and audience space to move and maneuver. Marissa Rae Roberts directs the piece with a keen eye towards furthering the story with enough detail to satisfy audience members keen on following the original story, while whetting our appetites for some of our tween favorites. Colin Thurmond does an adequate job writing the piece, though the production begs for more female songs with some of the bigger raves coming from a surprise Britney song (though giving it a smart character like Maria made this Shakespeare fan cringe a bit). Yes, despite being one of Shakespeare’s smarter comedies (compared with Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), giving any character a sex-fueled ditty makes them seem cheap. However, if you look beyond the source material, and if you take the play at face-value for its thrilling ride through the wonders of Britney, Justin, Nick, and Brian, you might find yourself grinding with the lady or guy next to you.
Stand-out performances by Blake Zolfo as Viola/Cesario with enough handsome bashfulness and sincerity to make any girl (or guy) swoon; Levin Valayil as Maria for his smart and sexy take, especially his ability to make his Britney number about female empowerment and independence more than raw sexuality and sex-kitten prowess; and Troy Barboza as the Fool who acts almost as narrator and emcee of sorts, framing the story and inspiring the crowd with his swagger and confident dance moves. Elizabeth McGuire does an exceptional job with adapting many pop dance moves and styles for these performers and for each song. Many of the actors adapt the choreography to fit their characters, which allows the songs to read more as dialogue than interludes in the action. That said, the piece drags in parts and it was not until late in the performance that the audience began warming to the action and the play’s style. Perhaps it was because it was a Monday night, not a typical dance-and-drink night.
My guess is that the play suffers from blending styles without a clear focus on its objectives. The Donkey Show thrived for many years because of its innovative style as it re-imagined the club/theatre scene; as you danced, you saw a story play before your eyes. Here, the focus is so much on the actors and their polished choreography that we’re afraid of getting in their way, disrupting the action, or missing something important. My humble suggestion is to introduce a more notable chorus or ensemble into the piece, which could mingle in the crowd to further the action while breaking up the story into more manageable and interspersed chunks. To add this ensemble, Roberts and Thurmond will need to consider where they are setting Illyria, a question which is unanswered in this workshop performance; my guess is that, considering the opening scene with the car accident and radio, that we’re in a Wonderland of sorts, a magical Neverland, inspired by memories and dreams of pop radio. I would push Roberts and Thurmond to be even more creative in framing their new adaptation and imagining of Shakespeare’s classic play.
SEXYBACK, or what you will could be a groundbreaking sequel to the hit long-running The Donkey Show. With some clear talent among its cast, interesting and appealing song choices, and innovative storytelling through music and dance, the play feels like a fruity new drink concoction ready to get this night started. However, I worry that it’s a little too saccharine and only lead to a bad hangover and dull ache in the morning without the proper twist and rich storytelling to prevent the crowds from guzzling without abandon.