It’s BEDLAM out there and I am referring to the rambunctious and fantastically subversive theater troupe out of NYC who takes a hearty bite out of Shakespeare, or rather two bites of the same juicy apple. The Bard called his gender-bending comedy of love, manners, and female empowerment TWELFTH NIGHT OR WHAT YOU WILL. BEDLAM takes the title literally and stages it two ways, alternating in repertory on different nights, with the same five actors, and it explodes in a riotous pair of evenings! You can see either, but I recommend seeing both at the Central Square Theater presented by The Nora Theatre Company until July 10th!

Shakespeare’s plot involves twins Sebastian and Viola separated by a storm at sea, with Viola washing ashore on Illyria where she disguises herself as Cesario, serves the Duke Orsino and woos the Countess Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, whereupon Olivia promptly falls in love with Viola/Cesario, who has already of course fallen in love with Orsino. And that’s just the beginning.

Tricks are played, mischief is made, and there are plenty of cakes and ale consumed amongst the secondary characters: Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s maidservant Maria. I will warn you it helps to reacquaint yourself with the play to keep up, given that the actors here double in roles in a plot that already calls for twins, who are doubling in roles disguised as their opposite genders, and where BEDLAM twists it one more time by casting women playing men’s roles who are not in disguise– and vice versa. Actor and Artistic director Eric Tucker orchestrates the marvelous mayhem with shrewd insight and daring.

Bedlam's "WHAT YOU WILL"

Bedlam’s “WHAT YOU WILL”

“What You Will” is wildly imagined; as we enter the theater we come upon the actors prone and bleached white on a blank white canvas floor, ready to become whatever they need to be. Decked out in white party clothes– crinolines and crisp white shirts, skirts, and trousers, it’s as if they’ve all been dusted with powdered sugar. The confection that follows finds the actors pivoting in split seconds from one identity to the next, tossing Shakespeare’s iambics around the playing space along with hats, sometimes licking ice cream cones, and eventually hurling red paint. (Yes, love is a blood sport and brings these characters to vivid life as the proceedings become increasingly colorful and everyone is infected.) Suddenly the fluidity of gender, sexual attraction, and the mutability of identity is ingeniously revealed and expanded as we begin to see these characters as extensions of each other– and us!

“Twelfth Night” is more conventionally staged as though the actors have just stumbled into a table read.  There’s swigging, and strumming and again the doubling and tripling of roles– but other than what they played in “What You Will.” Must be a devil for the actors to keep straight.  I saw “What You Will” first, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off a charismatic young actress named Kelley Curran; one night she played a prim, lovesick Olivia, AND a chain-smoking Sir Toby Belch– as a woman! In “Twelfth Night” she plays a sexy sullen Orsino in jeans and boots, and a cynical Maria. (I subsequently found out that Curran happens to be the younger sister of another vivacious beauty on the boards about town– McCaela Donovan. Whatever was in the drinking water in that household should be bottled and sold for mass consumption.)

Bedlam's "Twelfth Night"

Bedlam’s “Twelfth Night”

Equally magnetic is Susannah Millonzi who shares the role of Viola in “What You Will” and also plays a nerdy Maria like Gilda Radner’s beloved/bespectacled “Lisa Loopner.”  In “Twelfth Night” she plays an overwrought Olivia and makes a yokel of Sir Andrew Aguecheek.  Edmund Lewis among other things plays the put-upon Malvolio, the most pathetic character in all of Shakespeare, with great sympathy in both versions but whose vulnerability especially in “Twelfth Night” made me ask again, who among us has not been an ass. Actor/director Eric Tucker gets to kiss everybody in succession and simultaneously.

DO NOT MISS this freewheeling Shakespearean experiment from some of the best purveyors in the country!  I say see the more straightforward “Twelfth Night” first and “What You Will” after–but whatever you will, will be fine-and will out; just brush up your WILL beforehand. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater through July 10!