Theater Grottesco takes suspended disbelief to a new level. The theater company got its start in Paris in 1983 and is rooted in the same training as Cirque du Soleil. The troupe moved to Santa Fe in 1996 and continues to produce original works, all the while keeping the meaning of their Italian eponym in mind: absurd, splendid and jubilant.
To celebrate its 25th year, Theater Grottesco's artistic director, John Flax, and the rest of the ensemble collaborated to create Grottesco's 12th Night, a modern take on Shakespeare's classic romcom Twelfth Night. After a year of workshops, editing and fine-tuning, Grottesco's 12th Night debuted at the Santa Fe Opera's Stieren Hall on Sept. 19 and recently announced the extension of the run through Sunday, Oct. 12.
Grottesco's 12th Night, while based on Shakespeare's play, doesn't precisely follow the bard's original storyline. Instead, the company focuses on those serving in the homes of the play's noble characters. Left to their own devices, the servants begin to re-enact the drama they have so closely observed. As their imaginations take over, so leaves their sanity.
In the playbill, Theater Grottesco's acting board chair, Lois Stouffer, asks audience members to “suspend your need to know exactly what is going on in each moment.” Given the whimsical nature of the play, this is sage advice, but a little knowledge of Shakespeare's original play only aids the suspension. In Twelfth Night, a young aristocratic women named Viola is washed ashore on the island of Illyria after a shipwreck. Assuming her twin brother, Sebastian, is dead, she takes refuge by masquerading as Cesario, a young eunuch, and enters the service of the Duke Orsino. The Duke pines for Lady Olivia, but she won't have him. Desperate, Orsino asks Viola/Cesario to convince Olivia to hear his pleas. Viola, smitten with Orsino, obeys, only to have Olivia fall in love with "Cesario," not knowing he's really a she. This Shakespearen chaos results in more than one happily-ever-after once all the genders are sorted out. But Theater Grottesco's version doesn't pan out as smoothly.
The play does mirror the plot laid out by the bard, but with a different focus. The ensemble—comprised of John Flax, Charles Gamble, Rod Harrison, Kate Kita, Aimee Lasseigne, Mona Malec and Joy Mills—plays a menagerie of servants, including a cook, a barn hand, a fool and personal stewards. Lovesick Orsino has locked himself in his tower, leaving the servants to govern themselves, and the tension created by his omnipresence serves as major fuel for the action in the play.
Theater Grottesco has created pure art in Grottesco's 12th Night, at times presenting scenes that could translate into paintings as well as on stage. The Grottesco ensemble is masterful at physical theater, and brings with it a slice of theater of the absurd. The brilliant use of props, such as a giant tarp that nearly covers the entire stage and used to simulate a stormy ocean, is magical and imaginative. Fantastical scenes of flying brooms and musical dishwashing are interspersed with dialogue, both modern and Shakespearean, keep Grottesco's 12th Night grounded enough to prevent it from taking off into the stars and beyond comprehension.
The entire cast is capable and brilliant and is backed by an equally stellar design team. Do not miss Grottesco's 12th Night. This Santa Fe-based company is a boon to our theater community. In this original work, it has produced a world-class piece of performance art.