Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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On August 6, I went to Welles Park with hundreds of other Chicagoans carrying picnic blankets, food, and those little Shakespeare fans to see Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks’ performance of Twelfth Night. It’s worth the trek to your neighborhood park in terms of stage design alone. Without spoiling too much, one device that struck me as being highly original and humorous in this production was that of Viola/Cesario riding her bike in place on stage, while Malvolio races up, falls back, puffing, and finally overtakes her by overturning the bike and demanding that she take back the ring that she supposedly gifted to Olivia. Similarly, in the first scene of this production (the original play’s Act 1, scene 2) the twins hurl themselves around the nautical stage’s ladders and rigging, mimicking the violence of the wind and waves as their ship breaks apart and hurls them in opposite directions, movements rendered more striking by the sound of snapping timber and howling winds. Besides the fanciness of some of these more dramatic moments, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: Twelfth Night makes some interesting changes that speak to the question of translating Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. Adapted and directed by Kirsten Kelly, this production introduced Spanish translations of Viola and Sebastian’s English lines when they spoke to each other, played up and updated the music in Shakespeare’s original play, and eliminated Malvolio’s Puritan antecedents, three significant changes that update and simplify the convoluted plot.

In particular, the first change provides a subtext to the story that would otherwise be lacking, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the domestic with the foreign. With two Spanish-speaking actors in the production playing leading roles, the brash, amusing Andrea San Miguel as Viola and Nate Santana as a dashing Sebastian, Kelly apparently chose to have the twins occasionally converse with each other in this language. This brief use of Spanish ironically had the effect of being intelligible to some bilingual members of an audience already straining to understand early modern English, while excluding others from the intimacy of the twins’ relationship. Actor Will Mobley’s pre-play adjuration, “Watching Shakespeare takes a few minutes before eyes and ears adjust. Watch the faces and watch what the actors do,” applied perfectly to this scenario as well. Accordingly, this change did not obscure the play’s sense at all. Through their corresponding actions, such as desperate reaching, crying aloud, or embracing passionately, the general sense of these words could be easily interpreted by viewers: A brother and sister torn apart…A brother and sister lovingly reunited. These few translated lines also stressed how such Spanish-speakers in a predominately English-speaking society could find intimacy, familiarity, and even privacy in conversing with family members in their mother tongue. But what would Shakespeare say to his English lines being translated into modern Spanish? Based on his track record with languages other than English and Latin, I think he would love it.

Though all of Shakespeare’s lines in Twelfth Night are originally composed in English, the playwright also relished writing lines in other languages for diversion and show off his learning. Notably, he left spaces for Welsh to be spoken by the Earl of Glendower’s daughter, (a part possibly enacted by a Welsh-speaking actor in his company) in 1 Henry IV and in Henry V wrote the majority of Princess Katherine of France’s lines in French to indicate the cultural and linguistic divides that separated couples transculturally wedded in a time of war and dynastic change. As for Shakespeare’s use of ancient Illyria as the setting, this seems to have been motivated by a desire to choose a fantasyland for his shipwrecked travelers that would be culturally vague and exotic-sounding, not to pinpoint a specific setting. Dwellers at the sites of modern Montenegro and Albania, both the Illyrians and their native language remain lost to history, representing a convenient European geographical vacancy for Shakespeare to fill with a motley assortment of inhabitants inexplicably and haphazardly given English (Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch) and Italian (Olivia, Orsino, and Malvolio) names, regardless of interrelation or social class. As no indication is given in the original play as to Viola and Sebastian’s parentage, country of origin, or station in life beyond its being “above [their] fortunes” (Act 1, scene 5) and their having had a father who had previously “named” Orsino to his daughter as an eligible bachelor (Act 1, scene 2), it may reasonably be assumed that these twins with Italian or Latin names are from an Iberian locale and of noble birth. Having Viola and Sebastian speak Spanish to each other in Kelly’s adaptation ultimately emphasizes their secret foreignness in Orsino’s Illyria, a single wistful echo of the familiar world lost to them through their journey, shipwreck, and perhaps even new marriages to local Illyrian nobility, in an otherwise outrageous comedy.

And yes, this comedy is outrageous, playful fun by an impressively solid cast. Devastatingly regal in nightcap and silk dressing-gown, Jonathan Weir plays an off-the-cuff Malvolio for all he is worth, flailing his long, yellow cross-gartered legs about, making absurd facial contortions, and persistently stealing Lays potato chips and white wine from the audience at the least excuse: “Can’t eat just one!” Moping about Byronically with disheveled attire, Neal Moeller’s portrayal of Orsino emphasizes the character’s ridiculous oversentimentality while preserving the menace of his misogynistic diatribes against Olivia for spurning his advances. Further high points throughout the comedy were Dominic Conti’s hilarious gaucherie as the clueless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the comedic timing of Ronald Conner’s Sir Toby Belch, Nike Kadri’s dignified, passionate Olivia, and Will Mobley’s empathetic interpretation of Feste, Olivia’s fool. The boxing scene and its choreography were utterly marvelous—but I’ll say no more. Pack a basket, grab some congenial folks, and go see the play for yourself!


Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. Read more about Lydia…