Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, is arguably the lightest of William Shakespeare’s three festive comedies (the others being As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing). Like those plays, Twelfth Night is designed to delight the audience with a bawdy mix of gender switching, mistaken identities, and scheming pranks. The cast of all-local actors in the Guthrie’s ongoing production takes this material to new heights with its dynamic, high-energy performance that had theatergoers howling with laughter.
Few things in this age of viral memes and reality TV maintain their impact on society for four months, let alone four years. Twelfth Night, which first debuted on February 2, 1602, remains as capable of eliciting laughter today as it ever has. One thing that makes this so are its broad explorations into such universal human emotions as love, friendship, jealousy, and desire, but pushed to extremes that force the characters (and with them, the audience) to experience these truths in a different way. There’s a deeper undercurrent, of course, tied to desperation, grief, and loss. And of course, it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without an examination of the thin line between foolery and madness that feels as though it could have been written yesterday.
More than anything, this production is a triumph of casting. Emily Gunyou Halaas is excellent as the gender-swapping Viola/Cesario. But the show truly belongs to the stellar comic trio of Sally Wingert, Joy Dolo, and Sarah Jane Agnew. Each brings an incredible amount of energy, commitment, and comedic timing that redefine whatever roles they happen to appear in. Wingert chews the scenery as the mischievous Sir Toby, clearly loving every minute. It was a delight to see Dolo’s Guthrie debut as Sir Andrew after her masterful work in the two-person production of Snow White at the Children’s Theatre Company this fall; she is definitely an actor who is going places.
What makes this particular work of Shakespeare’s so perennially successful is the way it allows the actors to slip into the characters and make them their own. Lacking many details, other than when people come or go, the original text leaves all of the blocking and intonation to the actors and directors. In this version of Twelfth Night, the actors were given a veritable playground of a set—complete with a water feature*—which presented them with incredible opportunities to bring their characters to life. Even if you don’t know the text, the story is told as much through body language as it is through dialogue. This is undoubtedly a production worth seeing.
*The costume department must be working overtime just keeping all of the actors’ shoes dry between performances!
Photo by Dan Norman