Twelfth Night turns twenties

The cast of Twelfth Night takes the traditional Shakespearean story of misrule in a new direction harkening back to times of the Charleston, flappers and jazz.
The cast of Twelfth Night takes the traditional Shakespearean story of misrule in a new direction harkening back to times of the Charleston, flappers and jazz.
With its debut last night, Twelfth Night grapples with issues of love and loss.
With its debut last night, Twelfth Night grapples with issues of love and loss.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, takes its title from a festival surrounding the twelve days of Christmas, the finale of which becomes a carnival of misrule, where servants dressed up as princes, ladies courted men and fools were celebrated for their wisdom.

The ideas behind this madcap festival are certainly represented in the drama department’s production of Twelfth Night, but they’re taken in a new direction.

This can be seen in the show’s opening moments. Set after a storm so violent that it kills Viola’s brother, wrecks her ship and only barely spares Viola’s own life, the audience is met with a neat pile of suitcases and the calm sounds of a quay. The scene is well-acted and the effects are well done, but no one is wet or trussed up, and everyone seems tired instead of distraught or happy to be alive. Whither the theatrics? They’re muted in this show.

Set in the 1920s, the show features a delightful art deco set and sumptuous costumes; everyone changes at least once, and kicky 20s-era music punctuates scene changes and is occasionally sung by Sarah Bruckschwaiger’s talented and taunting Feste. The decision to use contemporary 1920s music instead of traditional Renaissance songs that would have been sung in the original Twelfth Night adds interest and contributes to the audience and cast’s effective immersion in the era.

Bruckschwaiger’s incarnation of the deceptively wise fool is well-played but undercut by her out-of-place—and time—hair and wardrobe. Witticisms and bawdy jokes aren’t the territory of most 1990s moms, which makes Bruckschwaiger’s character difficult to navigate visually, despite her impressive verbal dexterity and saucy delivery.

Director Judith Fisher’s note in the program said the piece is set in the post-war era in an effort to expose the “light and dark mixtures of mood and tone in the play” and to “highlight the inner conflicts of Shakespeare’s characters.”

The 1920s make a wonderful backdrop to the play due to the era’s party atmosphere and the emergence of a new kind of female independence—including the short bob that allows Viola to become her male alter-ego Cesario with such ease—but the infusion of post-war sadness seems to hang heavily on the brightly coloured cast and stage. As Antonio suspects of Sebastian, the play has “made division of itself,” with two halves that don’t necessarily fit together.

inclination towards melancholy certainly makes sense in theory—the play deals with issues of love and loss, and with a dead brother and unrequited lover each, Viola’s empathy towards Olivia is understandable—the attempt to juxtapose comes off as disjunctive. The comedic moments of the play clash with the seriousness of the more dramatic scenes. Like Malvolio, the show is seeing what it wants to see in the text—emotions that may not be fully grounded in the words on the page. The cast seems to be languishing where they should laugh.

Twelfth Night’s script contains an odd mixture of the dark and the comedic, a blend that comes to a head in the play’s famously ambiguous closing scene. Amidst mistaken identities and happy marriages are death threats and a truly ‘notoriously abused’ steward. But in Fisher’s version, the comedic is almost entirely overshadowed by the play’s troublesome undertones, making the cast’s closing sing-along to “Blue Skies” seem chilling and somewhat out of place.

The show isn't lacking in comedy. Misrule indeed rules the third and fourth acts of the play.

Although I had hoped for more of it, there are some truly hilarious performances—most notably Matt Stewart as Sir Toby Belch and Emily Richardson as his conspiring ladylove, who will almost certainly be your favourites too. These two also seemed to have the best command of the Shakespearean language.

Loud, vibrant and well-enunciated, Olivia’s servants and household hangers-on steal the show from the aristocratic lovers. Compared to the effeminate shrieks of Mark Rochford’s Malvolio or Paul Bryant’s performance as the clownish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the rest of the cast seemed to be lacking energy.

Tonight’s opening night performance will undoubtedly be injected with new life when faced with audience response, response that will certainly be found in the confused delight Michael Man’s Sebastian takes in being seduced by a strange and beautiful lady. “Am I mad?” he wonders. He decides to just go with it regardless.

Although I would personally veer more towards the comedic, Fisher’s reworking of a Shakespearean classic is
entertaining, even if, in the world of this play, not all ends well.

Twelfth Night runs tonight at 8 p.m until Nov. 8 and will return from Nov. 11 – 14, with matinees on Nov. 7, 8 and 14 at 2 p.m. in Convocation Hall. Tickets are $9 for students and seniors and $14 general admission and are available at the drama department office and at the door.

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