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Shakespeare & Beyond

5 things to look for when you watch Twelfth Night

2023 must be a Twelfth Night-kind of year, with major productions of the beloved comedy at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Classical Theatre of Harlem; this April, Folger Theatre’s Our Verse in Time to Come took inspiration, in part from Twelfth Night, with an estranged pair of twins seeking to uncover the story of their father’s life.

If you’re seeing Twelfth Night for the first time, or for… well, the twelfth time—what should you look for? What moments are key to understanding the play? What were the artists thinking about as they staged it? We asked a few of our favorite Shakespeareans what audience members should look and listen for. Here are their answers:

“If music be the food of love”

How does the production use music?

The cast of Twelfth Night dances as Feste (Louis Butelli) plays his ukulele in FOlger Theatre’s 2012 production. Photo: Scott Suchman.

Music is a huge part of Twelfth Night, writes Michelle Lynch, the Folger’s Artistic Associate. It’s central to two of this summer’s productions of the play: Lisa Portes’s production at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival featured a live Latin combo and cast Feste as a sonero, while Dawn Monique William’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival takes its inspiration from early blues and jazz singers. When you see a production of Twelfth Night, listen to the music and think about its role in the play, suggests Lynch. And don’t forget to keep an eye on the fool who’s playing it:

“In Twelfth Night, music serves as a powerful symbol of love that is woven into the fabric of the story. Right from the opening scene, Orsino sets the tone with his famous line, “If music be the food of love, play on,” establishing music as a defining motif throughout the play. Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario to serve Orsino, recognizes the potential of her musical talent to win her place as his trusted page. She acknowledges, “I can sing and speak to him in many sorts of music that will allow me very worth his service.”

“One character worth keeping an eye on is Feste, the fool. In every production of Twelfth Night, Feste’s portrayal is significant and unique. Feste’s role in the play extends beyond mere entertainment; he uses music to set the tone for pivotal scenes and reflect the experiences of the lovers. In Act 2, scene 4, Cesario and Orsino listen to Feste’s song about unrequited love, coinciding with Cesario’s confession of their love to Orsino. The song provides a poignant backdrop, enhancing the emotional depth of the moment. How is Feste portrayed in the production you’re watching?”

Folger Theatre will kick off its 2023/24 season with another play that, like Twelfth Night, appeared in print for the first time in the First Folio: The Winter’s Tale.

The cast of "Twelfth Night," from The Classical Theatre of Harlem, 2022. Photo copyright Richard Termine.

“Better a witty Fool than a foolish wit”

Wit and music as currency

The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Carl Cofield suggests asking who goes where and why they’re allowed to be there. In the play’s first scene, Valentine returns to Orsino’s court and reports that he wasn’t admitted into Olivia’s presence. Later, Antonio, a sailor who once battled some of Orsino’s ships, risks his life by entering Orsino’s domain in pursuit of his beloved Sebastian. Not everyone in Illyria can go where they please… so why can Viola and Feste?

Two currencies shape the magical world of Illyria: wit and music. For my production at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, I wanted to underscore these two themes. The characters who exemplify the traits are Viola and Feste and because they are in possession of these commodities, they are granted unparalleled access to all.

Viola is without question one of my favorite characters in the canon. Within minutes of washing ashore a strange new world, she must mourn her brother, survey the landscape, assess the danger and devise a plan. All of this within a page!

Carl Cofield is the Associate Artistic Director of The Classical Theatre of Harlem and director of the company’s acclaimed 2022 Afrofuturist production of Twelfth Night. The company followed it up this summer with Betty Shamieh’s new sequel to the play, Malvolio. Join them September 1 for their Bryant Park Picnic Performance, Young, Gifted, and Blackfeaturing Tony-nominee Crystal Lucas-Perry, Edward W. Hardy, Kaden Kennedy, Emery Mason, Melissa Mosley, and Roen Jones.

If nothing lets to make us happy both”

How do the characters react when they get everything they ever wanted?

Keep an eye out for Folger Director Michael Witmore’s favorite part of the play: the moment in Act 5 when Viola gets the one thing she most desired and is reunited with her brother. Witmore writes:

“I love the final scene when Viola talks about herself in the third person:

If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurped attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola…

– Twelfth Night, 5.1.261 – 265

“She is not willing to say ‘I am Viola’ yet, but draws the moment out by burying this statement in an ‘if’ clause. The reunion is so overwhelming, so joyful, so unbelievable—it’s as if she is only willing to touch the possibility that they have found each other after such a long time by entertaining it as an ‘if.’ The whole speech demonstrates what it is like to be overwhelmed by the possibility of getting what you have long wished for. Viola decides that the best way to face that is to delay the ‘It’s me at long last!’ for a while longer.”

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 Production of “Twelfth Night.” Phillip Hamer Photography.
By Phillip Hamer Photography

“What country, friends, is this?”

Exiles and immigrants

Lisa Portes directed Twelfth Night at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival earlier this summer. In an conversation with scholar Carla Della Gatta, Portes talked about how Twelfth Night reflects an immigrant experience.

PORTES: You see, I’ve always thought of as an exile story… I’m Cuban American and my exile stories come from my father, who came over when he was fifteen during the Cuban Revolution. My grandfather came six months after that, my aunt and uncle six months later, and finally, my grandmother after two years. So my dad was alone in this country for six months and didn’t see his mother for two years. In the production, Viola and Sebastian leave Cuba and get lost in a hurricane at sea. Viola washes ashore in Miami and we don’t know what happens to Sebastian. Miami is a predominantly Latiné city. So in this production—with the exception of Orsino and Olivia, Dame Toby, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek—all of the other characters are either first- or second-generation immigrants, exiles, migrants, or refugees from Latin America….

DELLA GATTA: In my study of Latinx or Latine-themed Shakespeare productions, Romeo and Juliet dominates—more than 25% overall. I attribute a lot of that to the popularity of West Side Story and the structure makes it easy to create two houses in division. It’s there from the outset. But after that, the most adapted is Twelfth Night because of themes of immigration and exile. One of the ways that your show is quite different from most of the other ones that have been produced before is that you’re not creating division and putting the Latine people in opposition to a dominant society that’s predominantly white. And so what that does is it gives the experience of Latine culture to the entire show.

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night ran this May and June in St. Louis’s Forest Park.

“You are betrothed both to a maid and man”

Gender and romance

Lisa Portes describes Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s “most gender-expansive play.” Viola’s decision to disguise herself as Cesario is somewhat reasonable from an early 17th-century perspective, as Catherine Belsey reminds us in her “Modern Perspective” essay in The Folger Shakespeare edition of the play:

The shipwrecked Viola, frustrated in her initial desire to seek employment with Olivia, resolves to present herself to Orsino as a eunuch, since she is skilled in music. (Ladies could properly become companions to other ladies, but the household of an unmarried man offered no scope for ladies-in-waiting.)

– Catherine Belsey

But gender isn’t just a practical concern in this play. Portes, Della Gatta, and Dawn Monique Williams all note that Viola’s disguise upends the status quo in Illyria and leads the plays characters to surprising realizations. As you watch, think about the ways other characters describe Viola or react to her gender presentation. Then, see how Orsino behaves in the final scene when he learns Viola’s true identity.

“Twelfth Night,” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Sam Jackson as Viola and Armando McClain as Orsino. Photo by Jenny Graham.

DELLA GATTA: One of the things I wanted to ask about is that gender play is crucial to the plot, and it doesn’t get Viola in trouble. She (spoiler alert!) actually gets what she wants.. But when people are trying to go up and down in class, that’s where they run into a problem and it creates a lot of comedy. I saw with some of your casting choices, you’re playing with gender a little bit more, correct?

PORTES: This production is about exile, but exile is as much from a country as it is from one’s own self, exile from one’s own identity, one’s own love. Every character in this play is, I think, in some way exiled from themselves. The exile is forever trying to find home again, but home is elusive, uncertain, or, at worst, dangerous. It’s interesting, unlike As You Like It, where there’s a big reveal for Rosalind in her women’s clothing, in Twelfth Night, there is no reveal. There’s just this line questioning if the captain will show up with Viola’s “women’s weeds”? But the captain never shows up and the women’s weeds are never donned. My feeling is that Orsino falls in love with an androgynous woman. And I just love that sense of people being surprised by who they fall in love with, beyond who they’ve told they should fall in love with. Love is individual. And I think that’s directly in line with what Shakespeare is doing. It’s his most gender-expansive play.

Dawn Monique Williams, writing about the blues music that inspired her production, also emphasizes the indeterminacy of gender in Twelfth Night and the way it leads Viola-Cesario to the play’s resolution.

Yet the blues release us, too; we can give in to the ecstasy of exorcism and be made whole. It is how Viola-Cesario cracks open this world of self-deceivers; before order is restored, we must follow these characters on their journeys of misdirected yearning and be reminded that “nothing that is so, is so.”

Gender and identity are grossly malleable; I am intrigued by how the play raises these questions. With a gender-fluid protagonist whose self-effacement disrupts the status quo, how do we understand romantic love?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, is onstage through October 15.

What’s your favorite moment in Twelfth Night? What do you always watch for when you see a new production? No matter what you’re looking for, we hope you make it to a theater near you this summer to catch a production of Twelfth Night.

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