Tempest-tossed twins crash in a strange land, only to rush into adventure, romance and gender confusion in Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.”
The classic rom-com from the Bard opens Oct. 25 at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts. Set in the decadent La Belle Epoch, “Twelfth Night” overturns notions of traditional romance and gender roles. The play is among Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies, said director Nic McMinn from the School of Theatre and Dance. It’s one of Shakespeare’s "twin" plays, with mistaken identities galore. It also boasts one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters: Viola.
“She finds herself washed ashore after a dreadful shipwreck,” McMinn explained. “As far as she knows her brother died. So, she has to make her way in the world, a world that might not be friendly to her.”
“She adopts a new persona, that of Cesario, and goes to work for a duke. Throughout the process, she learns a whole lot about herself, she grows as a person, she becomes much stronger. And by the end of the play, she’s a fully realized, confident, self-possessed woman.”
She also falls in love – with the afore mentioned duke. Tricky, that.
“He thinks she’s a very helpful male assistant,” McMinn said. “Her boss, Duke Orsino, is in love with Olivia, and he sends Cesario/Viola to go woo her for him. So, she’s wooing a woman on behalf of the man she’s in love with.”
But wait, there's more: Olivia ends up falling in love with the disguised Viola.
“It’s a perfect love triangle in which nothing is matching up and everyone is in love with the wrong person,” McMinn laughed.
Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, also has his share of romantic capers, including winning the affections of a gay ex-pirate and being mistaken for his twin’s male alter ego.
Along the way, McMinn has had to trim some of the jokes that haven’t aged well. But other than a few obscure references, he has found the text dovetails nicely with modern sensibilities.
“We were really interested in authentic living. I was interested in some of the struggles and outlook of Millennials and Gen Z and how they applied to this play. I started thinking of the bohemian culture in Paris in the 1890s, specifically in the Montmartre neighborhood. People will be familiar with this from the film 'Moulin Rouge.'"
The living-in-the-moment philosophy infuses the play with a contemporary edge.
“Applied to 'Twelfth Night,' it just seemed to fit so well. There’s so many characters who are living for what they have right now.”
“With our idea of living authentically and trying to discover who is actually inside, one of the things that I think is really fabulous and interesting that’s going on in our society right now is an openness to seeing gender as a spectrum. And the same with sexuality. We’ve really approached all of our characters with that in mind.”
“In Shakespeare’s time, all of the women would have been played by men. It would have been men playing women pretending to be men. So, the idea that gender is already a thing that we perform, it’s not a thing that’s attached to your soul, was something that he was working with over 400 years ago.”
“Twelfth Night” runs at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts from Oct. 25 – Nov. 2.
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