Some 413 years after the first recorded performance of “Twelfth Night”, USF’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Department took their own shot at Shakespeare for their Spring Mainstage show, via a faithful reproduction of the classic play. The key challenge of performing Shakespeare to a modern audience, who may be familiar with Shakespeare only through adaptations or traumatic memories of translating iambic pentameter in high-school, is transcending the playwright’s trademark verbosity with skillful acting. There’s plenty of that here, thanks to a cast of fifteen student-actors more than capable of captivating performances.
The action centers around Viola (Emma McCool), a young woman who’s lost her brother in a nasty shipwreck, and left alone in the world with no choice but to seek out work and sustenance. She learns of a lovesick Duke in town thanks to two friendly sailors who, presumably, have picked her up post-wreck, and promptly decides the best way to find a job is to dress up like a man and work for Duke Orsino (Whatever works, right?). The Duke (T.J. Duderstadt), for his part, appears to the audience as an emotionally volatile, overdramatic– albeit well-dressed –oddball who enjoys piano music with an almost orgasmic pleasure and later showers himself in rose petals, so he’s definitely weird enough to employ a random “man” who shows up on his doorstep. He’s also the first blatantly hilarious character to appear in “Twelfth Night” and remains such throughout the play; a wild-eyed and lovesick fool played by Duderstadt with gleeful abandon and a magnetic, frenetic energy.
Viola, now known as “Cesario,” her chosen man-name, is tasked with bombarding Olivia (Sienna Williams) with Orsino’s affections. Orsino is madly in love with Olivia, who’s having none of it–partly because her brother’s just died, and partly because she’s clearly not interested in his numerous advances. Cesario, new and with nothing to lose, is the new messenger who proves so good at his job that Olivia falls madly in love! ….with him, not Orsino. This new development sets in motion a series of problems that only worsen with the arrival of Viola’s not-actually-dead brother Sebastian (Sean Duckett, as a twin who looks just like Cesario), and Viola’s own deepening affections for the unattainable Orsino.
Think of “Twelfth Night” as an artful embodiment of Murphy’s Law, wherein anything that can go wrong will: it’s an amalgam of increasingly ridiculous situations, involving characters who must behave in increasingly ridiculous manners to stay afloat. Some aspects of the play certainly involve a suspension of belief– how did Viola even get that job in the first place? –and a hearty dose of patience, as “Twelfth Night” requires a great deal of set-up before the play hits its comedic core. Many plot-lines must be introduced before things really get wild: Orsino and Olivia’s history, Viola’s affection for Orsino, the clash between Olivia’s stuffy butler Malvolio (Connor Bullock) and her drunken Uncle Toby’s (Dylan Harrison) band of mischievous misfits, and its definitely possible that you end up more than a little confused trying to keep all the pieces straight.
The play’s payoff comes only partly with the ridiculous circumstances penned by Shakespeare long ago, and mostly with the actors filling his characters’ shoes today. There’s Sienna Williams, whose initial morose, elegant and sharply witty Olivia makes the character’s descent into lovesick madness all the more striking–and fairly believable, since Williams eases the audience into her character’s transition with desperate, awkward flirting before she dives right off the cliff of acceptable romantic affection and starts pinning Cesario against walls. There’s Harrison’s Uncle Toby, who manages to be wholly unlikeable throughout the entire play, but slowly emerges as more than an annoying drunkard. Truly, he’s a vaguely sadistic schemer hell-bent on causing mischief, with an unexpected brilliance in how to do so. Even Malvolio (Bullock), Olivia’s stuffy steward provides constant comedic relief, first with a committed pompousness that sees him practicing polite mannerisms to his own shadow, and then with a madness that sees him donning garters and skin-tight bodysuits to woo his own boss. At the heart of it all, however, is Viola/Cesario her/himself. Emma McCool’s character is hapless, kind-hearted, and completely trapped in the eye of an impending storm. McCool’s earnest portrayal of the play’s most–unintentionally–troublesome character anchors the surrounding madness, and the calmness Viola exhibits even as the world is crashing down around her is a nice constant for audiences to look towards.
“Ask yourself,” urges an intro in the program for “Twelfth Night”, “is the fool really the most foolish character in the play?” One thing is certain at the play’s end, “fool” is a moving target placed on nearly every single character involved. The joy comes in pinpointing who’s next, and laughing your way through the 2.5 hours it takes for every character to finish unscathed. Overall, USF possesses some skilled “craftsmen of chaos,” and comedian and comediennes. It’d be foolish not to afford this cast more comedic opportunities with which to shine.
Photo courtesy of Kristian George/Foghorn
Twelfth Night was part of the PASJ Mainstage Series
A play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephanie Hunt
Running April 16th, 17th, 18th