Joy ensues because in Shakespeare’s comedies, joy always ensues
Among his many achievements, William Shakespeare is also known for something slightly less laudable: the habit of stealing and adapting plots rather than inventing them. It was a shortcut, practiced also by fellow playwrights. Why bother to invent when so many were there for the taking? It saved time and you could improve on them. Or not.
When it came to characters and imagery though, Shakespeare excelled. And, as with the other playwrights of his day, his refashioned plots indulged in elaborate deceit and vindication in all its forms while his subplots usually involved comic rubes and fools who dispensed malapropisms and sly wisdom by the mouthful.
His best comedies are the fuel of great fun, propelled by lust, swept away by giddy humor, always dabbling in music while devolving into repeated antics that lead to happy endings. Consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Check out the variations on favorite themes: Lovers in distress, disguises, mistaken identities, soldiers and sages, sisters and brothers, lofty peers and silly peons — and, in The Comedy of Errors, more than one set of twins.
Twelfth Night has all of these elements and, if not identical twins, then a brother and sister separated by shipwreck and reunited when, thanks to the sister’s decision to disguise as a man, the two are mistaken for one another and revealed to be who they really are. Joy ensues because in Shakespeare’s comedies, joy always ensues.
These are some of the reasons why Chris Coleman, the DCPA Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, not only chose to do Twelfth Night but also to direct it.
“I knew I wanted Shakespeare to be part of this season,” he wrote in an informal exchange of emails. “Having the opportunity to continue exploring his work was one of the draws of this job. I also knew that our last outing was with Macbeth, so it made sense for it to be a comedy. Twelfth Night is among his very best writing in terms of fun of plot, richness of characters and delicious confusion of desire.
“Everyone is falling for the ‘wrong’ person in this play. Some kind of desire gets awakened [that] is not aligned with the individuals’ sense of identity or history. The tension around that is very interesting, and very current. I also think there’s a great sense of music and mayhem in the piece that [is] fun to try and capture.”
Music opens and ends the play, with plenty of room to add as much or as little of it as you wish, and mayhem influences all of the action in between.
“There is both delightful humor and depth of feeling,” Coleman added. “It begins with heartache: Viola thinks her brother is drowned; Olivia grieves the loss of her father and brother; Orsino aches for Olivia’s love, which is scaldingly unreturned. The emotional layers feed the comedy, but also give it resonance.”
Good point. The ever-present clowns in these comedies also have a serious function. They counteract the cloying potential of all that unrequited loopy love. And the ragged bunch of hangers-on in Twelfth Night are at once more closely related to the primary characters and considerably more cruel than his usual clowns.
The moocher, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle or cousin (he’s mentioned as both), is a layabout in the household who has no trouble inviting her clown Feste and her attendant Fabian or his own nebbishy friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek to join him in abusing Olivia’s largesse. They’re a roguish crew, aided and abetted in their games by Maria, Olivia’s “gentlewoman,” an elevated title for a housekeeper with a sense of humor who’s the mastermind behind the mischief, especially the nasty prank they play on her stuck-up steward, Malvolio.
The entire action takes place in a period Coleman loosely calls “Renaissance-ish Mediterranean,” circa 1500, a decent match for Shakespeare’s Illyria, vaguely assumed to be Croatia’s enchanting Dalmatian coast. So the mood for romance is all there.
In tune with our times, the cast is a stew of ethnicities, including four actors who also play musical instruments and several artists with lengthy ties to the Denver Center: Larry Hecht, Kim Staunton, Larry Paulsen, Rodney Lizcano and Sam Gregory. Stalwarts Charles MacLeod designed the lighting and Kevin Copenhaver the clothes. Tom Hagerman of the band DeVotchka has scored original music.
“My intentions with Shakespeare,” Coleman said, “are always to try and uncover the fundamentals of the language first: get to the heart of the sense of the language and why these humans need to speak these words. Then it’s about helping the actors fully inhabit the truth of the story’s circumstances and fully honor what the characters are up against.”
A final footnote: Perhaps to make up for the thread of maliciousness in Sir Toby and friends or the mean trick played by them on the hapless Malvolio or perhaps simply because the words came to him at that moment, one of Shakespeare’s most astonishing rhymed couplets is in this play, only to go largely unheard. Why? Because the words are spoken by Antonio, a peripheral character, in the midst of a heated argument.
In Nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deform’d but the unkind.
Words to live by, yet their throwaway spot in the scheme of things underscores how guilelessly Shakespeare squandered his eloquence. There are almost no lines of his you can dissect that don’t possess pith or elegance. Which explains why, after more than 400 years, his works are still with us and likely to remain with us for another 400.
Sylvie Drake is a translator, writer, and former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, a contributor to culturalweekly.com and occasional contributor to American Theatre magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
Twelfth Night: Ticket information
Hilarious hijinks. Unrequited love. Gender-bending disguises. The clumsiness of romance is on display in every way in this Shakespearean comedy. Separated from her twin brother after a shipwreck in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man to work in the local household of Duke Orsino. The closer they become, the more Viola gets acquainted with Orsino’s crush, the beautiful noblewoman Olivia. Much to their dismay (and to your delight), the trio is inevitably thrust into a love triangle of mistaken identity and wanton foolishness. Overflowing with quick wit and titillating trysts, this standout play by The Bard is sure to please with its captivating characters and one of his most dynamic heroines
- Dates: Performances November 15-December 22 (Opens November 22)
- Where: Space Theatre
- Genre: Romantic comedy with music
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here:
Photo gallery: The making of Twelfth Night in Denver
Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.