Shakespeare’s classic comedy Twelfth Night opens this weekend at STAGEStheatre with a few new twists. The original tale follows Viola, a shipwrecked young maiden disguised as a man, dodging the affections of the crazed Olivia while dodging her own affection for her master Duke Orsino who happens to be in love with Olivia. If that isn’t confusing enough, she must dodge the suspicions of Olivia’s court of fools and confidants. This chaotic farce has been infused with new music, extreme physical comedy and madcap humor.
I drew inspiration from commedia dell’arte and vaudeville to breathe new life into the play and highlight the comedy. The show is being presented with vaudeville sensibilities so things such as physical comedy, sleight of hand, tricks and music all play into the presentation. The play is meant to be silly, raucous and fun rather than a typical presentation of a Shakespearean comedy where ALL of the comedy is derived from an intense focus on language. Instead we have built upon that idea and synthesized the play with modern music, physical bits and things you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a Shakespearean play.
It creates a world on stage where literally anything can happen from one moment to the next without having to worry about whether something is right for a specific time period or realistic setting. The play is a true vaudeville production with over-the-top fight scenes, ridiculous musical transitions, melodramatic revelations and more.
As far as my approach, I’ve had the opportunity to study and perform Shakespearean plays under some of the best directors and dramaturges in both America and Europe. Whenever I begin the process of directing a Shakespearean/Jacobean/classical play I’ve always felt it’s important to look at things in a specific order.
The first thing to consider is the character relationships, how the characters interact with each other, how they feel toward one another, what secrets they’re hiding from each other, what class they adhere to, etc. For example, the Olivia-Malvolio dynamic: when taken at face value this relationship is of an upper-class woman and her servant. The end, right? Nope! When Malvolio is deceived into believing Olivia is in love with him, he pursues this idea with great vigor for the rest of the play. Knowing this and factoring in how quickly he begins to pursue his mistress, it is important for the actor playing Malvolio to examine if he has feelings for Olivia from the very beginning and how he can express those feelings in a non-verbal way; how he uses those feelings to inform his actions with Viola as Cesario or with Sir Andrew, or essentially with anyone trying to woo his lady.
The next thing to consider is what the world of the play might look like. In this production I made a decision to not worry about time period or specific setting. Our setting is a vaudeville stage complete, but the play is set in the seaside land of Illyria. Does that mean I need to have rocks and sand on stage? No way! Using a bare stage with vaudeville accents gives the audience awareness they are watching a play, meaning now the actors can talk to the audience, the audience can interact with the characters and anything can happen without having to goad the audience into buying a specific setting or time period.
The last thing to focus on is the language of a Shakespearean play, which can be quite dense, and at times it may seem like a jungle of words you need a machete to hack through. The worst thing I could do for the language is to look up a word I don’t understand in the play and take the basic dictionary definition of it and leave it at that. That’s what the No Fear Shakespeare books do. The importance of those beautifully rich words is lost when that happens! It’s all about context, why the character is saying something or why the wording is overly complex.
For example, in this show, Sir Toby has moments where he speaks ONLYÂ in allegorical contexts.Â Again, at face value, some would say it’s because he’s an intelligent drunken poet, but factoring in those character relationships we can open the play up and see he uses his intelligence and allegorical rhetoric in order to confuse the people around him, providing him vast opportunities to manipulate and coerce the other characters to his will. Once these three steps are done, it’s on to directing the play (and that’s where the real fun is).
There is a truly magical quality to this play that, unlike many of Shakespeare’s other comedies, lends itself to the fantastic. At base, this play is meant to entertain our audience with raucous staging and great bits of comedy. But it has been my goal to direct this play in a way that it is not only funny but accessible: something for everyone to laugh at and be entertained by. The cast is amazing and they have really embraced both the language and the ideas this production embodies.Â So, bring your kids, bring your spouse, bring your friends, bring your dog (please don”˜t actually bring your dog). This is undeniably a show for everyone. You’re not going to want to miss it.
Twelfth Night, presented by STAGES, opens Feb. 25; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through April 3. Tickets: $17-$20. STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth (between Lemon and Balcom); Fullerton; 714.525.4484 or stagesoc.org.
Adam Evans is a Californian born actor and director.Â In his relatively short career, he has participated in over 150 productions worldwide.Â His previous directing credits include Twelfth Night, Faster, Oh Dad Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, A Rainy Afternoon, Noises Off, Antigone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many others.Â His current production of Twelfth Night at Stages Theater in Fullerton will be his first large scale directorial effort in Orange County.