Twelfth Night twines together two plot stands. The primary thread revolves around twins, brother and sister Sebastian and Viola, who are both tossed into the sea when their ship is struck by a ferocious storm. The siblings are separated and both wash ashore in Illyria, each believing that the other has surely drowned. Viola disguises herself as a man to protect herself from dangerous men, calling herself Cesario. In this guise, she is taken on by Duke Orsino, who dispatches Viola/Cesario to plead his case for the beautiful Countess Olivia's affections, but the lady wants nothing to do with Orsino or any man. That is, until noting a different quality about "Cesario," when she becomes infatuated with "him." Viola falls in love with Orsino, who believes her to be a man. We have classic romantic triangle with the added complication of concealed gender.
While there is sufficient comedy to go around in that primary plot, the secondary storyline is completely uproarious. After Malvolio, Olivia's priggish steward, chastises Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Toby, Olivia's gentle woman Maria, and the fool Feste devise a devious trick that has the steward believing that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio then behaves in ways that he thinks will further endear him to Olivia, but in fact infuriate her. To this mayhem is added Sir Toby's candidate to vie with Orsino for his niece's hand, a buffoon named Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who lacks the wit to make any kind of case, but nonetheless enters the fray. The merriment–and merriment is the key here–becomes even keener when Sebastian, Viola's brother, appears on the scene, looking for all the world like his sister in her male disguise.
Lorca presents herself as a serious theater artist–which she has certainly proven to be–but she clearly also harbors an enormous reservoir of mischief and wit, as her production serves out a cavalcade of sight gags, mining every ounce of wordplay embedded in Shakespeare's text, and comical depictions of incidents–such as a comic duel made all the funnier by having swords that seem to be constructed of cardboard tubes covered up and joined by colorfully patterned duct tape. She also keeps it moving at a brisk pace, so that the muscles used in laughing get a month's worth of exercise in just one evening.
Of course, to bring such a madcap vision to life requires the right actors, and Lorca has assembled such a cast, a dream cast, for this production. All but one are experienced in Ten Thousand Things' distinctive manner of staging its shows, and the newcomer, Dariana Elise Pérez, seems completely at home in the mix as the twins Viola and Sebastian. Pérez spends the majority of her onstage time as Viola, and for a large part of her time as Viola, she is pretending to be the male Cesario, so the actor really has three parts. Viola is really the heart of the story here, the only character whose emotional arc matters, and Pérez conveys the character's depth along with the play's comical elements.
Katie Bradley, so exceptional recently in The Chinese Lady, plays Olivia, careening from a gloomy recluse in mourning for her brother, unwilling to set eyes on any man, to a jacked-up nymph, in pursuit of Cesario. Will Sturdivant as Orsino, the tamest of the characters on stage, conveys the right tone of a pompous aristocrat, especially when explaining to "Cesario" that no woman could ever love with the fervor of a man. Yet, he gives glimmers of his gradual sense that there may be something more to this new man, Cesario, that is stirring unaccustomed feelings, even as he holds true to his course in pursuit of Olivia.
The remaining five actors are all so continuously funny, and so deeply drawn into their characters' unique qualities, they could all be accused of stealing scenes from one another, but what a delightful band of thieves! Brian Bose is a fountain of joy as Feste, the countess's fool. He is sassy, feisty, abundantly energetic, and as agile as a panther. Ryan Colbert as Sir Andrew brilliantly plays dumb, with physical dexterity that brings to mind Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and The Pirates of Penzance. Mo Perry is absolutely hilarious as Malvolio, a singularly unlikeable character, yet one who prompts gales of laughter. Karen Wiese-Thompson as the raucous tippler Sir Toby and Maggie Chestovich as Maria, Olivia's bawdy lady in waiting, add their fair shares to the gathering storm of laughs that rises above the small stage.
Brian Bose also serves as choreographer for this production, and his portrayal of Feste, virtually in constant motion, is imbued with a dancer's grace. The musical accompaniment, performed solely by music director and composer Isabella Dawis, adds immensely to setting the tone, be it romantic, suspenseful or (most often) comedic. At one point the characters turn to Dawis to cease playing an underscore during their speeches, and have her resume when their speech is done, one of many examples of the playfulness of Lorca's vision for this production and its execution. Nat Koch-Smith has designed wonderful costumes that amplify each character's attitude, and Mina Kinukawa created set pieces and, notably, props, such as the afore-mentioned swords, which embrace the overall wit on view.
If you have not experienced it, Ten Thousand Things' signature method is to play to small audiences seated two or three rows deep on four sides of a square playing area, with no stage lighting or sound amplification and the most minimal of set pieces. Actors often take on multiple roles, with creative costuming enabling them to make rapid transitions from one to another. Everything must fit in a van so that the company can take their shows to non-standard places such as shelters, halfway houses, adult education sites, community centers, and prisons. At the latter they are not allowed to perform in the dark, and at any rate, few of these places have any kind of theater infrastructure–any large enough room will do.
Therefore, all Ten Thousand Things shows are played with all the house lights left on, even at more "equipped" venues such as The Open Book where they perform to paying audiences. This allows for maximum interface between the actors and audience–not that audience members are recruited to take to the stage, but there is occasional chat between a character and someone seated in the front row, and the fact that the players can see the response on the faces of their audience contributes to an amazing sense of intimacy for all concerned.
This intimacy, along with the commitment of every cast member, the fanciful design work, and Lorca's creative vision, jell to make this the most thoroughly enjoyable mounting of Twelfth Night I have seen. It plays for just one more weekend, but it is well worth the effort to score a ticket for one of its final performances.
Twelfth Nightruns through November 19, 2023, with all remaining performances at Calvary Church, 2608 Blaisdell Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-203-9502 or visit www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: William Shakespeare Director: Marcela Lorca; Assistant Directors: Peter Vitale and Aayush Chandan; Music Director and Composer: Isabella Dawis; Choreography and Movement: Brian Bose; Sets and Props Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Nat Koch-Smith; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom; Production Manager: Ryan Volna-Rich.
Cast: Brian Bose (Feste), Katie Bradley (Oliva/Sea Captain), Maggie Chestovich (Maria/Curio), Ryan Colbert (Sir Andrew Aguecheek/Antonio), Dariana Elise Pérez (Viola/Sebastian), Mo Perry (Malvolio/Valentine/2nd officer), Will Sturdivant (Orsino/1st officer), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Sir Toby/priest).