Lightning and rain thunders through Gonda Theatre. Nona Johnson (COL ‘17) and Alex Yurcaba (COL ‘18), playing twins Viola and Sebastian respectively, spin wildly in the midst of the chaos. Suddenly the latter falls, seemingly dead, into a built-in pool of water. So begins Twelfth Night, a collaboration between the Theater and Performance Studies Program and Black Theater Ensemble that reimagines the Shakespearean comedy with colorful set pieces, dance offs, and an exciting subversion of gender and race fit for a play of misplaced love and mistaken identities.
Directed by the Chair of the Department of Performing Arts, Prof. Maya Roth, Twelfth Night’s Caribbean locale lends itself to intriguing explorations of culture and diversity that function as the antithesis to traditional, stuffy Shakespearean theater. The set complements this vivid update; the aforementioned water on stage sits in sleek wading pools and lights bathe the stage in blues and reds, subtle manifestations of the actors’ emotions. The bright color palate and watery allusions—for example, the beautiful stained glass piece hung in the background—contribute to this new mystique. It is in this beatboxing, pluralistic dukedom of Illyria that Viola disguises herself as the young man Cesario and finds herself the star of miscommunications and love triangles gone awry.
Perhaps Prof. Roth’s most obvious nod to modernity is her seamless inclusion of music. Taking a cue from the play’s famous first line, guitar strings, piano keys, and saxophone riffs abound while everything from “Stand By Me” to “The Pink Panther Theme Song” is fair game. These songs are usually sung acapella by the play’s two Festes, played by the hilarious Mar Cox (COL ‘16) and Olivia Duff (COL ‘16). The decision to split the fool character between two actors is just one of many risks that pays off in dividends, resulting in an amusing dynamic and allowing for some beautiful harmonizations.
The entire cast is superb, from the gravitas emanating from Caleb Lewis (COL ‘16) as Duke Orsino, to the exquisitely expressive Amanda Wiese (COL ‘16) as Maria, the gentlewoman for Maddie Kelley’s (COL ‘16) countess Olivia. Gliding across the stage in a brocade skirt with an imposing slit, Kelley maintains her regal poise while simultaneously entreating Cesario or scolding Ali Coppersmith’s (COL ‘17) convivial Sir Toby. She deftly evokes vulnerability, giddy yearning, or an imperious hauteur when the situation warrants.
Pairing effortless postures of lethargy with a wrinkled boat cap, Coppersmith epitomizes island escapism and man-child revelry. The tricky Shakespearean dialogue percolates from him comfortably as he pals around with Michaela Farrell’s (COL ‘18) spirited Fabian and Charlie Trepany’s (COL ‘19) rich Sir Andrew. Trepany is a force of kinetic energy, ricocheting around the stage and kicking his legs to Rockette-level heights. Clashing with these comedic ruffians is Alec Meguid (COL ‘17), who delights as Olivia’s snobby steward Malvolio. Although he is often seen bristling rigidly at the antics of Sir Toby and Co., Meguid commands a range of feeling—from heartbreaking hope to distraught confusion. His stiff carriage and pompous accent add to the fun.
Having sailed through school without having read the play nor having seen She’s The Man, I followed the plot easily, thanks to the actors’ masterful handling of the script. Prof. Roth’s vision strikes the perfect balance between faithful and subversive, emphasizing the play’s comedic genius by keeping its themes fresh for a contemporary audience. While I initially found the burst of song and dance that erupted at the play’s end to be bewildering, its infectious energy soon won me over. This is a Shakespearean comedy as it should be performed: joyfully.