Faction Theatre's account of Twelfth Night is terrifically fresh in its stripped-back - not to say, at one point, half-naked - inventiveness.
It must be one of the few versions of Shakespeare's comedy of romantic yearning, gender confusion, madness and melancholy to include a scene of fugitive erotic ambiguity set in a sauna. Shai Matheson's uppish Orsino and his courtiers are not the only ones feeling the heat, in this relocated episode, as Kate Sawyer's disguised and mortified Viola takes orders from a new master who makes sure that he gives this clothed, uncomfortable "boy" a quick glimpse of the assets under his towel. His men look on, in part reprovingly, and, in part, what we'd call these days bi-curiously.
Under Mark Leipacher's lithe and astute direction, there's an exhilarating sense here that the eleven-strong company have purposefully scrubbed their collective memory clean of the encrusted plaque of the play's performance traditions. Using hardly any props and no conventional "scenery" in the bare black box of the New Diorama, the actors bring alive the topsy-turvy world of Illyria through a continually suprising and persuasive group-physicality. At the start, for example, they assemble singing an anticipation of Feste's later "Come away. come away death", all barefoot and rolling up their trousers, disorientingly and with lightning dream-like shifts, at once the denizens of Illyria and the waves in the shipwreck that strand Viola on these strange shores. It's a powerful and wonderfully economic way of cueing you into the production's beguiling, mixed moods.
There are a number of knock-out individual perfomances -- in particular, Jonny McPherson's gloriously funny Tim Nice-But-Dim-style take on Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Gareth Fordred's unusually intense and compelling Malvolio. Clumping around in a military tunic and stiff leg-brace (his evidently invalided war-hero making the yellow-stockings trick all the more gruesome), this balding, greasy-locked steward takes the audience into his confidence in the hushed, unsettlingly intimate tones of a true, deluded fanatic. The verse-speaking, though a bit rough in some quarters, has a unfussy directness that makes you feel you are hearing the lines for the first time. In general, though, what impresses most is organic inspiration of the ensemble work -- as in the unforgettable image whereby Malvolio's imprisonment in the "dark house" is conjured up by having the company clamp his desperate, starkly lit face and upper-body with a host of weirdly-angled restraining hands. It all bodes very well for the productions of Mary Stuart and Miss Julie which the same actors will perform in rep with Twelfth Night in Faction's admirably ambitious season at this venue.