For most Brown students, Shakespeare existed only in high school English classes; while his importance as a founding father of modern drama and comedy are drilled into our brains, his texts often remain inert to the modern reader.
To those who haven’t seen high-quality Shakespeare productions, welcome to a whole new world. To those who have and love it, welcome to your dream.
Twelfth Night, directed by Jane Nichols, is a well-oiled machine. Despite running two and a half hours, the show doesn’t ever lag. The actors are like frenetic puppets, weaving on and off stage with timed precision. The set, too, is moving; the stage, initially all but bare upon entering the theater, changes subtly but effectively to denote change of setting.
Nichols, an esteemed professor of at the Yale School of Drama and currently a visiting artist at Brown, is an obvious professional and the true star of the show, despite never appearing on stage. Her blocking is as tight as can be, and her knowledge of the text is clear from the start. Unlike many student productions of Shakespeare, it’s clear the actors know the exact meaning of the lines they’re delivering. When the actors know the meaning of their words, it’s much easier for the audience to wade through Shakespeare’s, at times, opaque text–and the jokes certainly land with surer footing. The actors are just as comfortable in group scenes as they are expertly delivering soliloquies that sometimes border on… lengthy.
The cast is uniformly strong, an essential element of a good Shakespeare play. The actors, through Nichols’ assured direction, illuminate the raunchy comedy present in a 500-year-old text for a new audience. Sexual innuendo and physical comedy are played up, but not to the point of distaste. Instead, you feel like you’re watching Shakespeare as Shakespeare would’ve done Shakespeare.
While there are some interesting stylistic choices–the show takes place in the 1920s, which makes for great costumes but doesn’t add much else, and is outfitted with a deliciously smooth jazz band that I only wish there was more of–Nichols direction shines most brightly through her mastery of movement.
The importance of physical comedy in Nichols’ production cannot be downplayed. With an illustrious background in clowning, including coaching at Cirque de Soleil and directing a Clown version of the Iliad in New York City, Nichols is able to evoke character through the slightest tick of an arm or shake of a leg. She’s subtle in her slapstick — perhaps an oxymoron, but one that aptly describes her highly stylized direction.
This slapstick humor is brought to life impeccably by leading and supporting characters alike, most vibrantly so by Sir Andrew (Jason Roth ’17) and Sir Toby (Skylar Fox ’15), boisterous drunkards traipsing around the island of Illyria. They, along with Fabian (Simon Henriques ’15), Malvolio (Patrick Madden ’15), an ill tempered steward, and Maria (Christina Ames ’15), a lovely but mischievous chambermaid, and Feste (Kevin Kelly ’15), the surprisingly wise fool, form the backbone of the subplot, and the seven have an impressive comedic rapport.
The players in the main plot are equally strong, although supporting characters tend to get the juiciest comedy. Deniz Cam ’15 as Viola–disguised as Cesario for most of the show–brings a ferocious energy to the character, while Celeste Cahn ’15 commands attention with the tiniest of movements as the fearful but ultimately silly Olivia.
Which brings us to the plot. The plot is, like most classic comedies, fairly simple (see: She’s the Man), and includes a shipwreck, concealed identities, love triangles and noble families. But who sees a Shakespeare for the plot, anyway?
While the show does contain themes still relevant to the modern viewer–the sexual tension between Sebastian (Ben Silver ’17) and Antonio (Christopher Thompson ’15), while definitely contained in the text, is certainly milked, and the gender-bending at the heart of the show questions notions of gender roles, even in as patriarchal a society as the one being portrayed–Twelfth Night does not try to be anything it’s not. It’s a comedy. It makes you laugh. What more could you want?
Twelfth Night opens tonight at 8:00 p.m. and runs February 26– March 1st & Mar. 5–8, Thursday–Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Tickets are available here. Freshman and transfers get in free on Thursdays!