A tenth grader sits under the harsh lights of his hour-long English class, silently trudging through an assigned copy of Macbeth. He taps his foot, eyes wandering from glossary to line to clock, whose hands seem never to move. What does he have to read this old nonsense for? He wishes the bell would release him from his misery.
Fortunately for his teacher, he need not search further than University Theatre to experience Shakespeare’s true merit. Thursday’s opening performance of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s “Twelfth Night” was nothing short of spectacular, highlighting the vast range of Madison’s actors, singers, musicians and dancers.
“Twelfth Night” is a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s famous romantic comedy, wherein a woman named Viola gets separated from her identical twin Sebastian by a shipwreck and disguises herself as a man named Cesario to provide for herself.
The story is the purest form of a love triangle: Viola is in love with the Duke Orsino, who knows her as his male servant; Orsino believes himself to be in love with the mourning Lady Olivia, who vows not yet to marry; and Olivia falls in love with Viola’s “Cesario” through his attempts to profess the Duke’s fondness for her.
Light spoilers ahead.
UW Theatre’s set paints a picture of the idyllic town where Viola finds herself, Illyria, as a quaint place, its most notable feature besides the medieval-inspired houses being a backward stone Bucky statue with a rather well-defined bottom. The stage design left ample room for the musical’s blistering band, who played impeccably over the course of the night.
Despite issues with microphone quality and a stifling mask, Sydney Germany’s Viola shone through a powerful voice and palpable chemistry with her many scene partners. “Viola’s Soliloquy” perfectly encapsulated a woman torn by the false image she constructed of herself, and Germany’s reunion with Noah Mustapa Kohn-Dumbuya’s charmingly rendered Sebastian was emotional and joyous.
Amelia Eichmeier (Olivia) and Ava Childs (Orsino) also portrayed their characters faithfully. Eichmeier masterfully tied the line between humor and longing into her “Is This Not Love” duet with Germany, and the voices of the three main characters blended together seamlessly in “If You Were My Beloved.”
“Twelfth Night” would not have garnered that volume of roaring laughter and applause if not for the show’s supporting cast, who hand-delivered Shakespeare to modern audiences in an accessible and hilariously authentic manner.
Jameson Milhaupt and Brady Madison played Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, respectively, who spend most of the plot conspiring with Lady Olivia’s servants Maria (Mak Strohmeyer) and Fabian (Megan Tennessen) against her chief servant Count Malvolio (Malcom McCanles). The noblemen demonstrated a knack for physical comedy, with Milhaupt stumbling drunk around the audience’s feet and Madison eliciting hollers with his stiff, flailing dance moves.
Milhaupt, specifically, wowed in his smoke-filled rendition of “What Kind of Man R U Gonna Be?” with a strong bass and impressive change in character tone, while Strohmeyer and Tennessen served enthralling depictions of petty villainy. And special note should be made of elementary-aged actors Rose and Rob Sellon, whose versatile roles were steeped in utter whimsy and glee.
The knockout performance of the night came from McCanles’s Malvolio, who commanded his scenes with dramatic costuming and a phenomenal stage presence. His self-titled soliloquies were executed flawlessly, the sheer flamboyance of his portrayal backed by booming belts and everlasting falsettos.
Finally, the show’s ensemble dedicated itself to reinvigorating its old inspiration. From the dynamic realism of the Ilyrians’ traded jabs in “You’re the Worst” to brilliant backup dancers in “Count Malvolio I,” the high-caliber ensemble cultivated an atmosphere of infectious energy crucial to the show’s enthusiastic reception.
As the relevance of old English literature increasingly continues to be called into question by contemporary playwrights and audiences, UW Theatre’s recent trend of tackling and renovating long-standing canon of authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or William Shakespeare himself is a unique choice.
Though the ongoing production of “Twelfth Night” is not a daring deviation from its inspiration’s conventional ending, it manages the hefty task of translating the original play’s intended cultural relevance and preserving its gorgeous written language. And by metric of laughter, the production’s opening night was certainly a smashing success.
Perhaps Shakespeare has found his next greatest reinventor since the 2006 hit film “She’s the Man.”
“Twelfth Night” runs from Nov. 9 to Nov. 19 at Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre. Tickets and showtimes can be found on artsticketing.wisc.edu.