For many people, the biggest hurdle faced when reading Shakespeare is the language. It can be impenetrable on the page, and consequently very boring. Many of the words he uses are unfamiliar, and so much of the humor, meaning, and plot gets lost behind that. If that is your biggest problem with Shakespeare, though, this production of Twelfth Night will be a huge relief. The acting is near-impeccable, making it easy to discern the plot (though if you need a little more context, the synopsis in the program helps). Even better than simply knowing what is going on, you will actually understand some of that archaic humor. Turns out people were making jokes back then about the same things we do now: love, drunkenness, and fools.
Twelfth Night tells the story of Viola and Sebastian, twins who have been shipwrecked in an unfamiliar kingdom. Most of the play focuses on Viola (Allie Pratt), who disguises herself as a boy, and immediately everything gets turned around, with various people falling in love, not realizing who the object of their affections really is.
One of the things making this play feel fresh and timeless is how it plays around with gender. Viola is disguised as “Cesario” for most of the play, and the object of her affections is a man, Orsino (Jay Myers), who doesn’t know her true gender. Not to mention, the object of Orsino's affections — Olivia (Elinor Gunn) — is in love with Viola as Cesario, unaware of his/her true identity. Questions arise throughout, though they are not fully explored. What are the true relationships between these characters, and how would they have changed if the real genders were never revealed? There is one scene in particular between Orsino and Viola that is so tenderly done it might make you cry.
Some of the best acting comes from Mike Dooly as Sir Toby Belch and Julie Briskman as Maria. Dooly plays a drunk, yet his dialogue is the easiest to understand – which is a plus, since he carries much of the humor throughout. Briskman is hilarious as Maria, both sweet and sarcastic. She especially brings out much of the physicality of the text, which is always a plus when watching Shakespeare, helping even a novice understand what’s going on.
There are only two small places the production falters. The biggest disappointment is how underused the set was, making you wonder why they bothered with the more fantastical elements. The hanging umbrellas, tilted chairs, and askew piano all feel intriguing, but they’re never really referenced. It feels unfinished, and the cast could have done without them and still had the same play.
The one other misstep is the emphasis on the character of Malvolio (David Quicksall). Quicksall’s acting is hilarious, some of the best in the whole play, but the plotline is drawn out in a way that ends up dragging down the rest of the play. I appreciate the effort to resolve loose ends, since in the original text there are several characters who are dropped rather unceremoniously. It seems in an effort to prevent that though, there is a little too much emphasis in the opposite direction.
Barring the set and slightly incongruous minor plotlines, this production is enjoyable, even for someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare. There’s a reason he is the most well-known playwright in the world. If you’ve been wanting to dip a toe into the many available plays, this would be a wonderful place to start. If you’re already familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate the acting and interpretation even more. Combined with the venue, the very intimate Center House Theater, Twelfth Night is a funny, cozy autumn production.
Seattle Shakespeare Company
October 21 - November 16