Bedlam, the New York City-based theater company that brought Cambridge its Elliot Norton Award-winning production of “Saint Joan” last year, returns to Central Square Theater as a presentation of the Nora Theatre Company. This time the troupe offers a double bill: Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” in repertory with “What You Will.”
The joke, of course, is that they are the same play. The full title of the Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” and director Eric Tucker conceived of the idea of presenting two very different interpretations of the same text on alternating nights. You could opt to see only one or the other production, and that would be a valid choice. But it would also be a pity; Bedlam’s brainstorm offers us a unique opportunity to see just what a difference any given artistic choice can make, and how a play’s entire tenor (if not its meaning) can change accordingly.
Dressed all in white — white gowns, white sweaters, white ties and jackets, suits and waistcoats, with a dusting of white makeup over the actors’ faces — the troupe move about in a bare white space. As love smites them one by one, they smear bright red paint all over themselves, splash it on the walls and track it across the floor. Love’s agonies can be awfully funny to observe, but we’re reminded here that there’s nothing comic about it to those who suffer. (Yellow paint comes into play, also, both as a literal visualization of the text but symbolically as a way of underscoring the way one character’s love, while genuine, is hopeless — and mocked.)
In “What You Will,” there’s far less music and it’s recorded, starting off with Billie Holiday’s rendition of “I’m A Fool to Love You.” If music be the food of love, indeed! In both cases, that line is uttered by Duke Orsino, a lovelorn nobleman in the land of Illyria. The object of his affection is Olivia, a countess in mourning for her late brother who is not receptive to Orsino’s advances. But when Orsino sends his new servant Cesario to plead his case, Olivia falls madly in love with him. The problem (aside from the obvious perils of having your boss’s crush fall for you rather than him) is that Cesario is a young woman named Viola, a stranger to Illyria’s shores who has disguised herself after surviving a shipwreck.