From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Shakespeare + Steampunk — Gears and Cogs Love The Bard

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of my favorite plays. I’ve seen over a dozen productions, love the 1996 movie, and have adapted the play numerous times for my own projects. It is an almost perfect blend of drama and comedy and, if you look at it with a modern eye, very feminist. I’ve never been particularly fond of the ending, but even old Willy wasn’t always perfect.

Whenever I attend productions of Twelfth Night there are two elements that must be in place for me to really enjoy myself. Foremost is the acting, of course. This is a challenging play, and also has some moments of awkwardness and dialogue that goes THUNK. But excellent actors and good direction can smooth that over. Almost as is important is the Idea of the play, which encompasses the set and costume design, choices of time period, and the overall feeling of the production. When these two elements blend perfectly you get a great theatre experience.

There have been many great Ideas for Shakespeare plays, ranging from setting it in different time periods (Victorian England is a favorite, as is Europe during one of the world wars, as is America in the 20’s), placing it in a completely fantastical world, and creating an island in the middle of a random lake just so you can accurately recreate the world of The Tempest. Yes, I did see that once. One recent idea that caught my eye is a production of Twelfth Night with design elements inspired by steampunk. After seeing some images of the set and costumes, I knew I had to see the play. So I kidnapped Stephen Segal of Weird Tales and we set off for the theatre.

Feste on Set

As I said, I’ve seen many versions of this play before. But I was prepared to be impressed because the set was even more amazing in person than in photographs. And when Feste (played by Matt Steiner) walked on stage and started tinkering with The Machine, I sank right into the world.

The Machine

Everything here is perfectly in place — the acting, direction, design, and Idea. The steampunk elements add depth to the characters and setting without distracting from the play itself. And the production team (which includes Cat Parker, director, and George Allison, scenic designer) added other interesting touches, such as the crossword puzzle played during scenes in the Countess’ house and the video screen that enhances parts of the narrative but doesn’t become a crutch, as so often happens with video in theatre.

A couple of days later I asked Cat Parker about why she chose steampunk to be part of the Idea of the play. “I just abhor bad concept plays,” she said with a laugh. “I hate when someone takes an idea for a Shakespeare play and just crams the story inside a design. Steampunk was a style more than a concept, and it influenced the set design and the furniture and, ultimately, the machinery of the world. But it didn’t impact the story.”

The steampunk aesthetic seems a good fit for Shakespeare, not only because it gets out of the way, but it has it’s roots in the Victorian era, a favorite time period of both theatre and movie productions. Parker notes that many of the Bard’s ideas have to do with formality, repression, and masking. And Twelfth Night has plenty of that.

The protagonist, Viola, spends most of her time disguised as a young boy. And she’s taken at face value mainly because of the way she dresses. In Shakespeare’s time it was unfathomable for a woman to put on pants and go to the city on her own to seek fame and fortune, much the way William himself did. (see Virginia Wolfe’s A Room Of One’s Own.) So if a person shows up on your door wearing clothing that signifies ‘This is a male’, there’s no reason to look beyond that.

Viola and Orsino

This is reflected in this production’s costuming. When Viola first arrives on stage she’s wearing a skirt and pants. Her transformation mainly concerns taking off the skirt (then learning how to act like a guy… easy!).

The Captain and Viola

Countess Olivia also wears a skirt and pants, which is perfect for her character. Though both her father and brother are dead, she maintains control of her estate and refuses marriage entreaties from Duke Orsino. She wants to marry for love and, shrewdly, a man below her in rank.

Viola and Olivia

The actor who plays Feste also plays Antonio and the Captain, characters who mostly aren’t on stage together but are all important. We know who he’s meant to be by simple changes in costume. It also helps that the actor is amazing.

I could go on, praising every member of the cast — they were all wonderful — and the crew and director. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, of Twelfth Night, of steampunk, or of great theatre in general, you should really go see the T. Schreiber Studio production of Twelfth Night in New York City. It’s running through November 23rd and tickets are by donation (suggested $25). Visit the show’s website for more details and show times.

Click here to see the Twelfth Night Image Gallery

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