Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Twelfth Night" at the Guthrie Theater

For their annual Shakespeare production, the Guthrie is bringing us a truly delightful, innovative, and playful rendition of the comedy Twelfth Night. And in a surprising and wonderful choice, the cast is 100% local. I'm someone who often calculates that percentage at the Guthrie, and while I appreciate the chance to see national talent on the local stage, I'm also the biggest fan of our #TCTheater community, so I always want that percentage to be higher. It's wonderful to see that rich, deep, broad, diverse, incredibly talented community 100% represented on stage in this production. The show is as Shakespeare's comedies are meant to be - fun, playful, accessible, almost interactive, heartfelt, and hilarious.

Viola/Cesario (Emily Gunyou Halaas) swinging with Olivia
(Sun Mee Chomet) while Sebastian (Michael Hanna)
looks on (photo by Dan Norman)
If you, like me, have a tendency to get all your Shakespearean romantic comedies confused, here's a brief reminder. Twelfth Night is the one with the shipwrecked male and female twins who are separated, each thinking the other is drowned. Viola decides to disguise herself as a man, as one does in such situations, calling herself Cesario and going into service for the Duke Orsino. On his behalf she woos the mourning Olivia, who wants nothing to do with the Duke but falls for young Cesario, who in turn is in love with the Duke. Viola's twin Sebastian shows up later causing much amusing Shakespearean confusion. Meanwhile, Olivia's handmaid Maria, her kinsman Sir Toby the buffoon, and his equally ridiculous friend Sir Andrew play a cruel trick on another member of her household, Malvolio, using his love for Olivia to humiliate him. It's all tied together with music, "the food of love," and in the end everyone lives happily ever after as true identities are revealed.*

Here are a few highlights of this production.
  • I'm not going to spoil the opening of the show, but it's a fun and unexpected twist (hint: watch for a misbehaving audience member).
  • Minnesota native and onetime Guthrie usher Tom Quaintance is making his directing debut here, and imbues the show with a great sense of fun and playfulness, while still bringing out the depths of the grief, confusion, and longing the characters are feeling.
  • The story is set on an island, so of course there's water. The stage is covered in a pool just one or two inches deep, with a platform in the center and decks through and around it. Characters heedlessly splash through the water, or delicately tiptoe through it (I'm looking at you Malvolio), adding another element of play (scenic designer Naomi Dawson).
  • The opening shipwreck scene is truly spectacular and brings the audience right into the storm, with flashes of light, loud noises, and characters being gracefully thrown about (lighting designer Yi Zhao, sound designer Sartje Pickett, movement director Carl Flink).
  • Emily Gunyou Halaas/Michael Hanna as Viola/Sebastian are perhaps the most believable twins I've seen in this show, and not just because they've both cut their beautiful brunette hair into super cool matching dos with shaved sides and a longer swooping center. Their love and loss for each other is palpable, and Emily's Viola/Cesario dance is impressive.
what fools! (Sally Wingert, Sarah Jane Agnew, and Joy Dolo)
(photo by Dan Norman)
  • What a bunch of clowns in this show! From Luverne Seifert's (the ultimate clown) wise fool Feste, to Sally Wingert's drunken Sir Toby, to Sarah Jane Agnew's scheming Maria, to Jim Lichtscheidl's poor bullied Malvolio. Each one of these actors is a treat to watch in all of their choices, and together they're great fun.
  • Guthrie Theater patrons, welcome to the wonderful world of Joy Dolo, making her Guthrie debut here. She is perhaps the most aptly named person I know; she brings joy to every show, and is perhaps at her most joyful here as Sir Andrew, with lots of physical comedy and playing with the audience as this character that is not the most graceful, socially or physically.
  • As the Duke Orsino and grieving Olivia, Nate Cheeseman and Sun Mee Chomet are both strong and regal, as well as endearingly foolish in love.
if music be the food of love... (Sally Wingert, Luverne Seifert,
Nate Cheeseman, and Sun Mee Chomet, photo by Dan Norman)
  • There's a lot of music built into this script, and this production realizes it in a unique sort of rock/pop way with mics and various instrumentation of the original compositions (by sound designer Sartje Pickett). Everyone gets in on the action at some point, but the core band is Michael Hanna on keyboard (and assistant music director), Jim Lichtsheidl on guitar and percussion, and Tyson Forbes on fiddle. It really exemplifies this play's most famous line, "if music be the food of love play on!"
  • Characters are dressed in a mix of modern and classic clothing, each one with a very specific wardrobe that tells us who they are. Usually it's the dresses that catch my eye at the Guthrie (and Olivia does have a few stunning numbers), but I'm kind of obsessed with Sir Toby's endless array of patterned suits (costume designer Ann Closs-Farley).
This fun and playful and 100% locally cast Twelfth Night continues on the Guthrie thrust stage through March 22.

*Plot summary adapted from what I wrote about Theater Mu's production a few years ago.