Audience members left All College Theatre’s (ACT) production of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in the Don Evans Black Box Theatre wounded from side-splitting laughter. The unconventional interpretation, as directed by College alumnus Jonathan Elliott, was an ironically appropriate experience done in true Shakespearean style.
Elliott may have offended Elizabethan purists with his uncanny directorial approaches, but nothing seemed out of place. Yes, there was the shocking sight of a “Big Gulp” cup at the entrance of Andrew Aguecheek, played by Mark Smith, sophomore history secondary education major, but its appearance was not at all superfluous. Elliot injected modern taboo and a simplistic description in his version of the classic comedy.
Though Elizabethan dress features prominently in most Shakespeare productions, his plays are not treasured because of haughty accents or dramatic costumes, but for their mastered depiction of human emotion and timeless relevance.
“Twelfth Night” stayed true to Shakespeare’s outlook on theater as an accurate reflection of life. Costumes, props and enunciation were used to let the audience identify with the characters unlike in other productions where supercilious additives are ill-received.
“When ‘Julius Caesar’ was originally performed, they were dressed like ancient Romans, the same for Hamlet and Othello,” Elliott said. “The only reason why Elizabethan dress was used in some of (Shakespeare’s) works was because it was a reflection of the time and that was all they had to go with.”
Thankfully for this production, all assumed Shakespearean pretension rested solely in Malvolio’s high-browed disposition – character expertly played by Kevin “Vegas” Lancaster, senior philosophy major – and not in the self-importance of Elizabethan mimicry.
“I’m trying to be true to the work and not to the period because I don’t want to lose sight of the playwright in the preoccupation of era-focused directing,” Elliott said. “Shakespeare would have been proud.”
From the pre-production soundtrack featuring the Vitamin String Orchestra, assembled by sound manager Jenna Bush, to the meticulous replacement of 16th century ale with Bailey’s liqueur, the entire production played with the juxtaposition of the classic and the contemporary.
A towering eight-foot castle didn’t imitate the texture of stone, but was drenched in black paint with silver and metallic accents. Gender-bending was depicted with shirts and ties instead of tights and corsets. Mandolins were swapped with acoustic guitars and classic language was boosted with fresh inflections accompanied by the occasional flipping of the bird.
Shakespeare was a firm believer in the power of laughter, and the walls of the Black Box Theatre have never absorbed so much of it. Whether it was Aguecheek’s severe oblivion or his face-planting, perpetually drunk companion Sir Toby Belch, played by Ryan Mitchel Yorke, sophomore English major, it was clear uncontrollable mirth was on the cast’s itinerary.
“That was our goal, laughter,” senior ACT president Amanda Ganza, who was a true jack of all trades for this production, said. She effortlessly juggled the role of Maria, production manager, assistant director and set designer.
The cast and director’s struggle to please the audience was not accomplished without opposition. More than half the players were freshmen, and at times their inexperience – unclear speech and forgotten lines – tainted the integrity of the text and fractured the fourth wall, but the struggle made the cast stronger and more passionate, culminating in an excellent performance.
“It was a great show,” Nicole Jefferson, sophomore English major, said. “The cast really shut it down.”
The hilarity that bounced off the walls after Saturday night’s closing performance has probably been reduced to an echoed giggle, but the stitches from laughter will take a little longer to dissolve.