‘Twelfth Night’ charms with midsemester madness

Olivia loves Cesario, who is really Viola disguised as a boy, who is in love with Orsino, who loves Olivia, who later marries Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who has no idea that Viola is even alive. Confused? This, in a nutshell, is the plot of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, and is not as difficult to understand as it seems – especially when rendered as adeptly as in WilliamsTheatre’s production last weekend. The production, directed by Robert Baker-White, professor of theatre and department chair, rose to the challenge facing those reimagining Shakespeare’s works: maintaining accessibility of text and tale for novice theatergoers while providing a fresh complexity of experience for erudite scholars of the Bard. Baker-White and his design team presented a complementary aesthetic vision, choosing to forego theatrical visual spectacle or hyper-realism in the name of celebrating the beauty of Shakespeare’s aesthetic creation via the beauty of his text. Above all, the palpable chemistry amongst the company members augmented the dialogue and served as a solid foundation for establishing believable characters in a world of improbable odds with an unrealistic conceit.

Lizzie Fox ’12, portraying the show’s heroine, Viola, revealed a clear mastery of Shakespearean language and her electric stage presence grounded the production, captivating the audience while offering a constancy and stability to cohere the work in spite of its plot contortions and convolutions. Fox was undoubtedly the show’s anchor, for whom we root as she pines after Orsino and accidentally seduces Olivia. Her performance made the challenging task of portraying a complex female character in disguise appear effortless.

As Viola’s lost twin brother Sebastian, Owen Barnett-Mulligan ’13 won the audience’s empathy with a true brotherly compassion and mournfulness for his believed-dead sister and also was delightfully impetuous in his brashness to the other characters who mistake him to be his sister in disguise. His brief exchanges with Olivia, played by Tyisha Turner ’12, were particularly satisfying, as she in turn mastered both the role’s contrasting moments of mourning and of lovesick joy. In the role of Count Orsino, Chuck Shafer ’10 was clearly less familiar with handling the complex nuances of Shakespearean text, yet deftly depicted the duality of Orsino’s machismo as well as his sensitive pining after the wholly uninterested Olivia.

Jonathan Draxton ’12 gave a standout performance as Olivia’s steward Malvolio. Draxton’s focus and specificity with Shakespeare’s language and his physical characterization of the role was matched only by his comedic timing in crucial moments – his pre-intermission recitation of the love letter allegedly written to him by Olivia in Act II Scene 5 was a clear show-stealer and moved the audience to hysterical laughter.

The trio of Lucas Bruton ’11 as Sir Toby Belch, Ben Kaplan ’11 as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tess McHugh ’11 as Maria provided the play’s most jubilant and hilarious comedic moments and represented excellent casting on Baker-White’s part. Bruton’s lecherous lush and Kaplan’s clueless fop proved a success with the audience as McHugh’s flirtatious mischievousness punctuated the show with levity and wit as the trio delivered fully realized performances of characters whose significance might be otherwise relegated to mere subplot.

The ambience of the world of Illyria created by Baker-White and the design team was made aurally complete and cohesive by the music of recent alum Eric Kang ’09, who set the lyrics of Shakespeare’s text to lilting and memorable melodic tunes endearingly performed by the equally sweet Feste, played by Eva Flamm ’10. Flamm’s impish and charming Feste was like a clever wink to the audience as a good Shakespearen fool should be – transcending while simultaneously creating the comedy. She was accompanied by Kang on piano and cello and the additional musical stylings of Michelle Rodriguez ’12 and Ben Kuelthau ’13 in providing a soundscape that fit perfectly with the show’s buoyancy.

The scenic design by David Evans Morris ’96, professor of theatre, furthered this vivacity, suspending the actors on a platform stage of three triangular sections of exposed wood reminiscent of “the boards” of Shakespeare’s Globe, while also calling to mind the ephemeral otherworldliness of Japanese Noh theatre. The abstract space served the same function as the bare Globe stage – to allow the actors to vividly recreate the world of Illyria through the Bard’s poetry and not a directly representational set and props that leave little to the audience’s imagination. The CenterStage’s alley configuration invited the audience members to see each other over and through the playing space, adding a community atmosphere and providing for imaginative stage pictures as the actors played across the set’s various levels.

The production’s pacing did lag at moments between scenes, as allowing actors time to exit and enter in such a versatile and unconventional space can prove a challenge. Additionally, the show’s few moments of spectacle didn’t always cohere with its overall feel – the bucket that descended from the exposed lighting grid to dump water on Viola at the play’s start posed an obvious technical challenge and perhaps an unnecessary one to set up and clean up onstage. Similarly, the scene of Malvolio’s imprisonment was the only one of the show to be set in virtual darkness, with one harsh square of light on his hand protruding from the platform-turned-trapdoor; because of this contrast, the scene came off as more significant to the overall plot than it was, and seemed unexpectedly dark and heavy-handed when contextualized with the rest of the production.

However, one of the production’s most successful moments was one of pure spectacle, as during the closing musical number a giant shower of color confetti rained down from the same bucket and all over the audience members. Certainly a departure from realism as Feste meta-theatrically sings of the play’s end, the audience was thus included in the celebration of the happily reunited siblings and joined lovers. Baker-White and company certainly succeeded in providing audiences with a moment in theatrical time “most wonderful.”

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