The title of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is often considered a reference to “Epiphany,” or the twelfth night of the Christmas Celebration. Around Shakespeare’s time, this night was celebrated with a festival involving immense amounts of food and drink, and the idea that everything can be turned “upside down.” In Tudor England, there was even a tradition in which the king and other highborn society members would become peasants, and those at the bottom would rise to the upper class. The traditional festival cake had a bean hidden within, and the individual to find the bean would become King for a day. At midnight, that individual would return to his proper class position, and the system would return to normal. However, every year, this day represented a period of time in which anything could happen, not unlike the events that unfold in Shakespeare’s comedy, and a concept that Director Jordan Friend embraced in his production.
Directed by Friend and written by William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night follows the path of Viola (Maggie Thompson), who finds herself shipwrecked on Illyria. She disguises herself as a man by the name of Cesario, and becomes a servant for Duke Orsino (Mark Ashin). He enlists her aid to woo the Lady Olivia (Morgan Sendek) and as she helps him woo his love, she finds herself falling in love with him. In the process, Olivia develops a love for Viola disguised as a man, and the play becomes a story about misunderstanding and love triangles that finally sort themselves out in the final moments of the play.
Upon walking into the space, the audience was transported into a lively party full of music and dance. Actors walked around in character offering food to the audience members, welcoming them to Illyria. Friend mentions in his director’s note that he wished to combine Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures in order to create a mysterious and exotic Illyria, and he accomplished his goal through the design elements.
4615 Theater Company performs out of Friend’s suburban home, and Scenic Designers Halle Beshouri and Nathaniel Sharer used the intimate space of the basement to their advantage. They covered the floor with vibrantly colored pillows and blankets, and draped the walls with similarly colored fabrics, which made for a strikingly beautiful stage. The pillows came to represent Duke Orsino’s home, and depending on the setting of a particular scene, the pillows would be switched out for a bench to represent Olivia’s garden, or some chairs to symbolize her home. The simplicity worked well for the production, and the warm colors in combination with the small space emphasized the idea of an all-encompassing party full of mystery in which anything could happen.
Costume Designer Paul Alan Hogan’s work on the production pushed the beautiful aesthetic of the stage over the top. Hogan’s costumes were exquisite, and matched the vibrant nature of the set design, especially in the jeweled vests on Duke Orsino and Feste. I was blown away by Hogan’s work at every new introduction of a costume piece. These costumes were more impressively made than some I have seen on professional stages with far higher budgets.
Transitions can make or break a play, and I was pleased to find that rather than a simple black out to allow time to move furniture, Friend used these moments of the play to further the story. A particularly impressive moment was the transition into Scene 9, which took place in Duke Orsino’s home. All of the characters from Orsino’s household, as well as some of the servants from that of Olivia, flooded the stage. They brought the pillows that would represent his home, but also food and drink. Music blared, and in the midst of the dancing and revels, Orsino attempted to dance with Viola, who turns away. At this point in time Viola is still disguised as Cesario, and Orsino does not know that she is in love with him. Friend utilized the music and dark lighting of the transition to emphasize the confusion of their feelings for each other, and the tension between them that would only heighten as the play goes on.
The play consisted of an overall strong ensemble of actors that brought the wit of Shakespeare’s language to life. Friend clearly helped these actors thoroughly understand the events of the story, and I was constantly curious to see what would happen next.
In particular, the cast that made up Olivia’s household as a whole was a constant thrill. I found myself looking forward to these scenes because I knew I would be in for a laugh.
John Burghardt as Sir Toby Belch and Alexander Burnett as Sir Andrew Aguecheek played off each other brilliantly. Their comedic timing was spot on, and both actors embraced the physical nature of the piece, which is particularly important considering Sir Toby’s constant drunk demeanor. Margaret Murphy’s approach to Maria provided a lovely contrast to the over-the-top physical humor of the two men. Murphy created a powerful character who was constantly trying to reign in the shenanigans of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew; however, she also made an excellent switch when it was her turn to give into the chaos of the play, and trick Malvolio (Jacob Roberts) into believing that Olivia was in love with him.
Roberts provided one of the strongest performances of the play. Malvolio is meant to be an obnoxious character whom all of the characters despise, and Roberts accomplished this goal beautifully. He was always trying to end the fun of the characters surrounding him and maintain a certain order in the chaos. However, part of the brilliance of Roberts’ performance was that he managed to make me feel sympathy for him at the end of the play. At this point in the story, Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian have convinced Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. He changes aspects of his demeanor in order to secure that love only to find that it was all a trick, and she is in love with Cesario. Though the trick was hilarious, Roberts conveyed such intense heartbreak that I almost found myself wishing that events could go differently for him.
Nicopoulos as Feste provided another brilliant performance. The character always seems to know what was truly going on behind the “masks” of the other characters, and Nicopoulos played the manipulative aspects of the character wonderfully. Her beautiful singing voice pushed the character over the top. Friend utilized this talent throughout the play as a form of live music, which especially enhanced the scene in which Viola/Cesario and Orsino almost lose themselves and realize a form of love for each other that is a little more than “brotherly.” Nicopoulos sang in the background, which increased the sense of mystery surrounding the scene.
It was in this scene where Ashin and Thompson as Duke Orsino and Viola especially showcased their excellent chemistry, and brought the conflict of the moment to life. I found myself on the edge of my seat wanting their relationship to evolve in that moment, and curious to see how the action would transform.
Lively, enjoyable, and aesthetically striking, Twelfth Night was a production I was glad I did not miss. The run may be over, but 4615 Theater Company is a group to watch out for. If they provided this strong of a performance out of Friend’s basement, I am curious to see where they are in five years.
4615 Theater Company Presents ‘Twelfth Night’ and ”Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ In Rep by Lauren Katz.