Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night


“Is there no respect of place, persons nor time in you?” (2.3.91-92). If there is one question that Kirsten Kelly’s Short Shakespeare adaptation of Twelfth Night takes most seriously, it is perhaps this one. Twelfth Night, like Shakespeare’s other festive comedies, including As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, is a carnival-like pursuit of love and mirth in which the powers of disruption and change, for a time, reign supreme over the conventional forces of order and restraint. In Kelly’s production, in particular, the underscoring of changeability—of locale, affections, convictions and identities—seems to be the only constant. Content
and form neatly reflect and reflect upon each other in this adaptation that so cunningly makes use of its production elements in order  to tell Shakespeare’s story in a way that is clear and engaging for student audiences.

Even before the play begins, the ideas that will govern this world are foreshadowed by the production design. The stage is washed in the cool blues and sandy golds of Greg Hofmann’s lighting design—a color palette brimming with sea and shore hues—while Scott Davis’s cleverly teetering, off-kilter set only adds to the feeling of windswept possibility. The audience is given the distinct feeling that at any moment what appear to be curtains will become sails, pillars will become masts, and what looks like a balcony can then only be a ship’s rail. This quickly proves to be the case. Scenes shift fluidly between interior and exterior spaces, and among the residences of Orsino, Olivia, and the seacoast of Illyria. Transitions are aided by furniture that is quickly moved and repurposed and by Ethan Deppe’s original music and sound design. Music, the “food of love” in Illyria, is itself a changeable thing here, respecting neither place nor time as hits like Sinatra’s “All of Me” and Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You” mingle in a fictional land with an early twentieth-century ambiance lent by costumes designed by Rachel Healy (1.1.1). Scenes are frequently played on top of other scenes as the action in one sphere is suspended in order to shift the audience’s
focus elsewhere.

Into this world teeming with the power of transformation enters the young heroine, Viola (Rebecca Hurd). After surviving the requisite storm and shipwreck which land her on the Illyrian shore—themselves conventional signs and agents of change—Viola disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, and serves as a page to her new beloved, the Duke Orsino (Neal Moeller). But while Viola embodies the festive potential of a purer, more sincere love given room for expression in the freeing interplay of disguise and mistaken identity, Orsino is the embodiment of the conventional wooer trapped in rigid courtly artifice. The object of Orsino’s desires, the Countess Olivia (Krystel Lucas), is herself obsessed with unchanging ritual. She is a vision of chaste, aloof womanhood, withdrawn from the world in mourning for her brother, but her practice of mourning—her own performance of love—is just as life-denying as Orsino’s. Both delight in their own unchanging suffering. Oliva’s household is fittingly run, then, by the puritanical steward, Malvolio (La Shawn Banks), who enforces a stifling regime of absolute order, sobriety and misguided self-denial.

Yet Olivia also maintains a household fool, Feste (Will Mobley), who is the opposite of Malvolio in every way. Just as Viola (as Cesario) upsets the order of Orsino’s and Oliva’s lives—Orsino and Olivia, attracted by the paradoxical sincerity of the dissembling Viola, both come to accept the risks of romantic love and of living fully—it is, of course, the fool who challenges the wisdom of the steward’s extreme devotion to propriety. Conventional notions of wisdom and folly change places with astounding frequency in this play until the drama is brought to its almost-orderly conclusion. Intemperance is squashed, balance is restored, romantic couples are appropriately paired, brother and sister are reunited. Nearly everyone assumes a place in Shakespeare’s transformed Illyria.

But in Kelly’s production, the endless changes that began the moment Viola lands in Illyria seem to cease by the close of Act 5. Deprived of its ambiguous ending through the happy inclusion of Malvolio in its ensemble performance of Feste’s (usually solo) final song, the resolution of Kelly’s Twelfth Night could very well be described as too neat and overly reassuring, perhaps even a bit condescending to its student audience. Shakespeare’s text, after all, refuses to tell us what happens to Malvolio after his avowal of vengeance on his merry-making tormentors (5.1.378). His potential for future change—for good or ill—remains open. But maybe there is another way to think about Kelly’s choice here. By including Malvolio in the play’s comic conclusion, perhaps Kelly is not merely refusing to acknowledge that the steward’s conversion is still a complex work-in-progress. Perhaps she is including him in the most radical ongoing transformation of all—that of a community’s reconcilia­tion through the transformative power of forgiveness.

Stephanie Kucsera is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in early modern drama with a focus in inter-religious encounter and constructions of
English nationhood. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago, an inter-disciplinary MA from the University of Chicago, and her BA in theatre and English literature from the University of Indianapolis.