by Christine Sarkes
The cast and creative team of Guthrie Theater’s Twelfth Night squeeze every ounce of humor, romance, and physicality out of Shakespeare’s great comedy; it is a zany, madcap delight. Many aspects of this production were so well and cleverly done that I can’t find a single negative thing to say. When we were seated, I had an initial “OK, Boomer” reaction to the metal scaffolding, wondering if I would miss “traditional” costuming and staging. I didn’t. The use of water, height, color, texture and movement in this production all served to bring Shakespeare’s play vividly alive and accessible. If you’ve never seen live Shakespeare, I heartily recommend this as your first experience.
The plot begins with tragedy and survival, but quickly transitions to music, comedy and romance. When a shipwrecked Viola washes up on Illyria’s shores without her twin brother, she must adapt to her strange new surroundings on her own. For safety, she disguises herself as a boy and quickly finds favor and employment with the lovesick Orsino, who pines for Olivia’s devotion. After a series of mishaps and plenty of mayhem, their love triangle becomes so entangled it brings all of Illyria along for the ride.
How do I even begin to praise the acting? Every performance was pitch perfect. From Guthrie veteran, Sally Wingert, as Sir Toby to Joy Dolo’s Guthrie debut as Sir Andrew, the actors brought layers of comedy gold. Sarah Jane Agnew as Maria, Jim Lichtscheidl as Malvolio, and Luverne Seifert as Feste also brought their comedic ‘A game’ to the production. It was Joy Dolo’s hysterical performance as a clueless aristocrat and sidekick that gave the audience its biggest laughs. Don’t miss her silent pantomime with a balloon in the background as she practices for an upcoming duel. As I struggled with the pronouns in that last sentence, allow me to praise the creative team for choosing cross-gender actors for this production about a cross-dressing heroine. Gender relations and cross-dressing were frequent themes in Shakespeare’s plays and this one would have been a mind-bender. During the Elizabethan era, women were not allowed to act onstage and male actors often played female roles–in this case, a man would have played a woman dressing as a man.
The romantic leads were only slightly overshadowed by their comic players. Emily Gunyou Halaas as our heroine Viola, Sun Mee Chomet (Olivia), Michael Hanna (Sebastian) and Nate Cheeseman (Orsino), gave heartfelt performances in the romantic triangles that underpin the play. The comedy is only heightened by the depth of the grief and heartache felt and conveyed by these actors. Most of the cast also performed as musicians and singers during musical interludes.
Interestingly, the production is infused with hometown pride. Director Tom Quaintance is making his debut at the Guthrie Theater and has strong and local ties to the Guthrie. He grew up two blocks from the old Guthrie and in college he became an usher, which, in his words, “changed my life.” Carl Flink was the head usher at the Guthrie at the time who encouraged Tom to become an usher and is the movement director for this production. I hope to see more from this dynamic team in the future!
Twelfth Night, play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Quaintance, sccenic design by Naomi Dawson, costume design by Ann Closs-Farley, lighting design by Yi Zhao and sound design/composition by Sartje Pickett. February 8 – March 22, 2020 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Tickets start at $25. On sale now through the Box Office at 612.377.2224, 1.877.44.STAGE (toll-free) or online at guthrietheater.org. Post-play discussions and access services (ASL-interpreted, audio-described and open-captioned performances) are available on select dates and by request.