There’s always at least one show in the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival that gets me thinking about something other than the show itself. This year it was Pig Iron Theatre Company’s rendition of Shakespeare’s oft-produced Twelfth Night.

The show was universally well-received. Enthusiastic audiences granted standing ovations (though that may not be saying much), and just about every review was a rave. And I agree. It was without a doubt the most engrossing production of a Shakespearean comedy that I’ve ever seen. But that’s just it: the credit, for the most part, is still the Bard’s.

I had to wonder why the company would squeeze itself into the straightjacket of a classic work when doing so seems so anathema to whom they are, how they work, and what they create. When asked explicitly, director Dan Rothenberg had a blunt answer: money. You see, the company received funding from the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative for a two-year rendezvous with Shakespeare. You can’t turn that down.

Pig Iron is known primarily for their devised works and their physical approach to multidisciplinary theatre art. Rothenberg noted that this was the company’s first engagement with a “classic” script, and that their goal was to Pig Iron-ize the play without doing a “script intervention.”

Photograph by Jacques-Jean Tiziou

To do that they reached into their familiar toolbox, pulling out their wonderful sense of physicality, their eye for design (the set encouraged endless unconventional movement), and their creativity – when the script allowed for it. One aspect of Shakespeare’s plays that often allows a lot of leeway is the music, which is mentioned in the script but not prescribed. The ensemble mined this fertile element, presenting the big brassy band as a character in its own right, striking an aggressive gypsy-like chord. But, again, developing the music is still playing within the rules.

I noticed just one element where they colored outside the lines: without adding or subtracting any dialogue, they managed to insert an entire scene into the play, depicting the marriage of Sir Toby and Maria. When asked about it, Rothenberg explained that the scene arose during workshops, prompted by an actor’s suggestion and the desire to start the following scene in the aftermath of a raucous party. THIS is Pig Iron-izing. They develop work as a creative ensemble; they don’t tether themselves to scripts.

Unfortunately, that scene was just a small element of the play. With this production of Twelfth Night, Pig Iron became a traditional theatre company putting on Shakespeare. They did a great job of it, yes. (With their formidable skill it’s hard to go wrong when working with language like “You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.”) They managed to sell out while still having fun, garnering accolades, and producing a work that is clearly marked by their brand. You can’t blame them.  But Pig Iron is at its best when being itself, not when reining in its creativity. Their finer devised works, like 2007’s Live Arts/Philly Fringe premiere Chekhov Lizardbrain and 2009’s Welcome to Yuba City, are performances that are seared into my mind. Twelfth Night will soon be forgotten.

Productions of Shakespeare have their well-entrenched place in our culture, but is that place really in the versatile hands of a company like Pig Iron? Enough companies can do excellent Shakespeare. Very few can create the collaborative, boundary-crossing, exhilarating work that is Pig Iron’s calling card. How about we try funding that?

Directed by Dan Rothenberg, set by Maiko Matsushima, lighting by Tyler Micoleau, costumes by Olivera Gajic, music by Rosie Langabeer. September 1-17th, 2011 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.

WITH: Blake Delong, Scott Greer, Birgit Huppuch, Jaime Maseda, Mark MCloughan, Michael Sean McGuinness, Charleigh E. Parker, Andy Paterson, Sarah Sanford, James Sugg, Alex Torra, Dito van Reigersberg.

For Further Reading check out reviews by: Toby Zinman, Philadelphia Inquirer; Mark Cofta, City Paper; Alaina Mabaso, Broad Street Review; Helen Shaw, TimeOut New York.

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