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The Many Facets of Twelfth Night

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

Given the sketchy records of the Elizabethan court in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it's hard to know when this multi-faceted comedy was first performed, but the title and subtitle give us some clues as to the bard's intent.

While present day observances of Twelfth Night (January 6th) are generally confined to the ecclesiastical calendar as the Feast of the Epiphany, in Elizabethan times it was also celebrated as a secular holiday, with an assortment of revelry and mischief.

These contrasting expressions—the sacred and the profane, restraint and revelry—are not only the opposing forces in the play, but are longstanding poles of human behavior around which discussions can be traced back at least as far as classical Greece, where they were symbolized by Apollo, on the one hand, and Dionysus, on the other: a rational and ordered life versus a sensual and spontaneous one.

(Left to right) Logan Ernstthal as Sir Toby Belch and Stephen Weitz as Antonio
(L to R) Logan Ernstthal as Sir Toby Belch
and Stephen Weitz as Antonio
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
As director Philip Sneed puts it, "I really think it has to do with an Apollonian versus Dionysian worldview. I go off of the line that Toby Belch says to Malvolio, 'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?' Meaning, whatever you do and whatever your opinions are, this is going to happen, people are going to party.

Timothy McCracken as Malvolio
Timothy McCracken as Malvolio
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
"There's a real tension in the play between Apollo and Dionysus, as there has been throughout history: Those folks like Malvolio who believe in order, who believe that there need to be rules, and that the only way people can function effectively and get along and do anything useful is if order is established and enforced; and those folks like Toby Belch, who are infused with a spirit of life that can't be stopped; no rules will stop them."







Logan Ernstthal as Sir Toby Belch and Leslie O'Carroll as Maria
Logan Ernstthal as Sir Toby Belch
and Leslie O'Carroll as Maria
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
In the course of the story, this conflict—Malvolio (steward to Olivia, a rich countess) versus Toby Belch (Olivia's kinsman), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Belch's companion), and Maria (Olivia's lady in waiting)—escalates, leaving us to consider the means for reconciling these opposing world views within ourselves and between ourselves and others.

Geoffrey Kent as Orsino and Kate Berry as Viola disguised as Cesario
Geoffrey Kent as Orsino and
Kate Berry as Viola disguised as Cesario
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
The playwright interweaves this struggle with the other major dynamic in Twelfth Night: love in its many forms and disguises. Early in the play, Viola, who has survived a shipwreck, masquerades as a man (Cesario) and finds work as a go-between for Orsino (the Duke), in his efforts to woo Olivia.

Rachel Fowler as Olivia and Josh Robinson as Sebastian
Rachel Fowler as Olivia
and Josh Robinson as Sebastian
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
Her disguise sets in motion many confused feelings: Orsino has feelings for Cesario, but doesn't feel these are appropriate; Olivia grows fond of Cesario and is frustrated by his resistance; while Viola has feelings for Orsino, but is unable to properly express these without blowing her cover.

Jamie Ann Romero as Fabian and Ian Andersen as Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Jamie Ann Romero as Fabian
and Ian Andersen as Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
As is so often the case in Shakespeare, the refined struggles of the nobility are comically paralleled in the behavior of the rustics (common folk); in this case, the crude approaches of Malvolio, Belch, Aguecheek, and Maria serve as a fun house mirror of sorts, hyperbolizing the conduct of their superiors.

One interpretation of the sub-title of the play, What You Will, is that the work is an attempt to capture and condone all these variations of love.

As Sneed sees it, "I think What You Will can apply to the idea that 'love is love' and whatever is attractive to you is okay, which is an interesting and lovely theme."

Jake Walker as Feste
Jake Walker as Feste
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
All of this courting is fed by music, as suggested by Orsino's famous opening remark, "If music be the food of love, play on!" Expect some telling melodies and lyrics that reveal the playwright's musings on these subjects.

Beyond the many facets of the play, the production itself represents an exciting collaboration between two formidable theatre companies, as Arvada Center artistic director Rod Lansberry explains:

"Given our interest in producing the classics, why wouldn't we draw on the expertise of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival? It allows us to bring that period to our audiences and with a group that knows it so well."

So rest assured, and enjoy the festivities, for as Feste (the clown) sings:

Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
(Act 2, Scene 3)

The Arvada Center's production of Twelfth Night runs through May 27th. 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.

The production then moves to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, where it runs June 9-Aug. 4 (preview June 8), in repertory with Richard III, Noises Off, Treasure Island, and Women of Will. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.

Bob Bows

 

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