When the elements of trickery, androgyny, mistaken identity, cross-dressing and true love come together under William Shakespeare’s hand, they can create only one thing – a damn good play. The University of Massachusetts Theater Department’s production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” takes a refreshing take on the comedy by setting it in the age of excess and jazz: the 1920s.
In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, the protagonist, Viola, is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria during the opening scenes. Believing her twin brother Sebastian to have been lost at sea in the wreck, and wary of this unknown land, she assumes the disguise of a man and calls herself Cesario to find work. With the help of the sea captain who saved her, she enters the service of Duke Orsino, who is convinced that he is in love with the bereaved Lady Olivia. Lady Olivia, mourning the loss of her father and brother, absolutely refuses to see any suitors, Orsino included. The Duke sends Viola as an intermediary to Olivia, who, believing her to be a man, falls in love with the eloquent messenger. Viola then falls in love with the Duke, who also believes her to be a man. Thus, a love triangle emerges: Orsino loves Olivia, Olivia loves “Cesario,” and Viola loves Orsino. With the added hijinks of the members of Olivia’s household, the play is a hilariously captivating comedy of errors that enthralls the audience with everyone’s misery.
The remarkably talented cast brings Shakespeare’s text to life with a natural vibrancy. Brittany Costa plays Viola with an earnest energy that wins the audience over. Costa’s portrayal of Viola’s steadfast personality flows through her dual genders seamlessly.
As a testament to the well-roundedness of the cast, the secondary characters often shine just as brightly as the leads. Julia Piker’s genuine portrayal of the devious Maria lends valuable support to many scenes. Sir Toby, adeptly played by Duncan Grossman, provides much of the bawdy humor, delivered with excellent timing and physicality. A highlight of the cast is the prudent Malvolio, given new life and endeared to the audience by Greg Boover’s lively performance. Under Dawn Monique Williams’ direction, the athletic cast is in constant activity and executes movements with perfect comedic timing.
Unusual for a play, the production makes music a central theme of the show. According to the UMass Theater Department’s website, Director Williams’ last two main stage productions at UMass were musicals, and that music proves to be her point of entry into the performance. While one might expect the more jazzy side of 1920s music, the show tends to focus on down-home blues, giving the performance a less glitzy, but more natural feel. Assistant Director Luke Reed composed original music for the pieces sung in the show. While these originals are very well done and are reminiscent of the period, they bring a modern flavor to the piece that 1920s loyalists might not appreciate. However, the performance is intended to relate to more contemporary audiences – as evidenced by frequent asides in modern vernacular – to hilarious comedic effect.
However, the 1920s are excellently portrayed through Costume Designer Erin Amelia White’s beautiful costumes. With color palettes indicative of the age and unique styles for each character, the costumes truly heighten the experience. Olivia’s first entrance is breathtaking due primarily to her flowing mourning clothes. The set, too, is reminiscent of the era, painted in a late-impressionist style. Its layout is deceptively simple, for its functionality is revealed in new ways throughout the performance. Viola’s first entrance from the shipwreck is a highlight and testament to the skill of Scenic Designer Miguel Romero and Lighting Designer Jessica Greenberg.
The UMass Theater Department’s production of “Twelfth Night” is a show that you do not want to miss. The exceptional cast, direction, and technical elements truly bring Shakespeare’s work to life.
Twelfth Night is playing at the Rand Theater on April 28, 29 and 30 at 8 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m. Tickets can also be purchased through the Fine Arts Center Box office in person or by visiting their website.
Melissa Mahoney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.