Theater program and can of beer

Review: What’s Love Got to Do With “Twelfth Night”?

Are you intimidated by Shakespeare, or plays in general? Don’t fret, the Guthrie Theater’s fresh take on Twelfth Night, one of the bard’s most popular comedies, is here to give the audience what they want: Instagram-worthy sets, musical breaks, relatable comedy, giant swings, even balloon drops. 

How do I know that is what the audience wants? There was the standing ovation during my performance, and the frequent spurts of laughter, but there was also a moment at intermission when a young woman talking to the couple next to her said, “I wish they did a better job of marketing this show because it’s so unique, so different from normal Shakespeare. I think a lot of people would love it.” 

I agree with her on the first and last part. The imagery for the show — two tidal waves, one capped with a ship, crashing and forming a heart — is standard Guthrie fare, but fails to give a true sense of the new ideas director Tom Quaintance and co. are bringing to the classic tale, especially to commuters who are glancing at it on a billboard. And I do think many Minnesotans will, if not reach Sir Andrew-levels of mirth, come away with a better appreciation for Shakespeare, since the all-local cast translates the complicated plot effortlessly.  

That plot, by the way, is the one adapted in the Amanda Bynes classic She’s the Man. In other words, it’s the one about fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian who are separated during a shipwreck. Viola washes up on the island of Illyria, then crossdresses, calls herself Cesario, and finds her way into a love triangle with a duke and countess. Meanwhile, the countess’s servants and relations are squabbling, ending in a prank gone too far. And when Sebastian turns up in Illyria, things really get cooking. 

It’s a web of dramedy, to be sure. But despite the accoutrement the Guthrie has added, I can’t agree with my fellow viewer in describing this production as “unique.” In giving the audience what they want, the creative team — akin to Sir Toby and Maria — seem to have gone a step too far, and the outcome is not what they intended. Those who have seen multiple productions of Twelfth Night will most likely see through the disguise, and leave with yet another traditional production under their belt.

How do I know what the creative team intended? Artistic director Joseph Haj states in his program note that “many productions play up the laughs,” implying that Quaintance’s reimagining, well, doesn’t.

The audience on Thursday night would beg to differ. The biggest laughs came not through inspired renditions of Shakespeare’s witticisms — though they were on display from Guthrie veteran Sally Wingert as Sir Toby and Sun Mee Chomet as Olivia, in particular — but through gags like the brandishing of a Slim Jim, a belly flop into an onstage pool, and a lingering glance at the audience after the line “sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian.” If that’s not playing up the laughs, then call me Feste.

The show even begins with a gag, though I’ll let you experience it for yourself because it did trick me. And that unnecessary moment sets the tone for the show, as Feste the fool (played by Luverne Seifert) becomes ringmaster of the proceedings — the costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are deliberately nontraditional, and Feste seems pulled from Barnum & Bailey’s troupe — stealing the show to the detriment of the “grief, loss and longing” Haj seems confident the team captures.

There are moments of deliberate gravity, like an added shipwreck scene, which combines literally boundary pushing choreography from movement director Carl Flink and scenic design from Naomi Dawson worthy of a tempest, but even that feels deficient, as the sound lacks the power of the other elements. And when it comes to the customary heart of the piece — Viola learning that her twin brother is alive, their reunion, and what should be a firework-finale romance between her and Orsino — those moments don’t seem to have been given as much thought as, say, flicking a coin into Feste’s pocket, which happens multiple times and always got a few whoops. 

However, there was one element that I quite enjoyed, more than I have in any other production: the relationship between Sebastian (played by Michael Hanna) and Antonio (Tyson Forbes), the captain who saves his life. When they leap onto the stage late in the play, Forbes’s animalistic sailor paired with Hanna’s giddy dreamer seemed ready to commandeer the ship and steer it in a new direction. And while I was, as always, on the edge of my seat during the climactic reveal, when the ship came into port, I found myself back where I started.

Twelfth Night

Guthrie Theater
818 South 2nd Street
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Final performance: March 22
Buy tickets here

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