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Monday, August 08, 2022

University Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’ offers rich complexity

With a unique Hawaiian setting, University Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” has been playing at Hemsley Theatre for a week. With over 10 characters who have distinct personalities and correlations between each other, combined with the intriguing yet complex plot, the play may overwhelm the audience because of its richness.

The story starts with a shipwreck where twins Sebastian and Viola become separated. Each is rescued but thinks the other is dead. To survive on a foreign island, Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a eunuch to serve the Duke Orsino who is in love with Countess Olivia, a woman who never reciprocates his affections. Sent by Orsino as a messenger to express his love, Viola, disguised as Cesario, impresses Olivia with his (her) manner. Viola being in love with Orsino, Orisino being in love with Olivia and Olivia being in love with Viola forms a seemingly pathetic yet comedic love triangle. At the same time, Sebastian and his savior, Antonio, arrive to Illyria because of Sebastian’s desire to tour an exotic island, establishing the main conflict of the play.

“Twelfth Night” is thought to display more homosexual undertones than Shakespeare’s other plays. The strong bonds among characters create love and importance regardless of gender. During the era of Shakespeare, homosexuality was prohibited by law and there were cases where people were sentenced to death because of it. Gratifyingly, this play is a progressive exploration of love regardless of gender. It is an experiment open to a possibility considered completely wrong during Shakespeare’s time. A play written about 400 years ago can still give us valuable inspiration on what romance—an evergreen theme in human storytelling—should be like in forming our modern, social and cultural norms. The cross-status romance in the play indicates that there is no barrier that stands in the way of romance. The multicultural and multiethnic casting in this particular production contributes to this value.

UT’s “Twelfth Night” has done a great job in going along with Shakespeare’s idea of gender ambiguity. Several male roles including Antonio, Sir Andrew and Fabian are played by females, successfully aggrandizing the confusing effect of “I don’t know the true gender of this character.” David Furumoto, the director, chooses to let actresses play these roles, which also wins my applause. Wearing a moustache and lowering her voice, Brette Olpin, who plays the role of Antonio, makes an effort to show masculinity and the result is great. Characters fall in love with one another because of the specialness that he or she has and gender has no intervention. Gender-disguising costumes and makeup are also convincing enough while the set design is visually remarkable and eye-catching. The colorful Hawaiian setting with diverse elements such as native Hawaiians, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, European missionaries and folk music take the audience on a journey.

This play is very rich, maybe a little too rich if all the diffused elements are not grouped together tightly enough. There is so much going on! The cast is huge and some characters who seem to have no immediate correlations with each other are actually bonded in a different way. The question is how to make the engagement stronger.

Sir Toby Belch is a noteworthy character obsessed with extravagance yet lacking diligence. He shares many similarities with Sir John Falstaff, another selfish, shrewd yet popular character created by Shakespeare, who was presented in UW-Madison University Opera’s “Falstaff” in the fall of 2016, played by UW Voice Professor Paul Rowe. What’s interesting is that audiences don’t necessarily loathe this type of character. In fact, we all have a little bit of Sir Toby or Falstaff living in ourselves. In both “Twelfth Night” and “Falstaff,” Sir Toby and Falstaff are both tolerated and forgiven by others in the end. Designed as a crucial yet entertaining role, Sir Toby could certainly stand out more by adding more cunningness to his drunkenness and more desperation in keeping Sir Andrew by his side. Also, among the three couples, the romance between servant class Maria and noble class Sir Toby could be improved to be more convincing.

Overall, there were a large amount of interesting aspects, but the different elements could be worked into the bigger picture more. How do all these separate things work together for this one big show? Stronger engagement and communication between characters and elements is one suggestion. A stronger investment by the actors in the engagement with co-actors is another. It is a big cast and it is a big show. A lot of things are going on onstage and audiences may feel overwhelmed by all of it. Bravo on making so many things happen, UT’s “Twelfth Night!” However, the audience can be engaged even more by being given a more holistic stage presence.

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