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Hold Onto Your Cross-Garters As Theater MFA ’20 Brings “Twelfth Night” To High Schoolers

Daily Editor Lillian Rountree attended the Friday morning performance of the Columbia MFA Acting Class of 2020’s rendition of Twelfth Night, co-produced with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Young Company, and relived the excellent experience of discovering Shakespeare for the first time among an audience of high schoolers.

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”: so goes the famous Shakespeare quote, said by the witless steward Malvolio (Jon Robin) halfway through the romantic comedy Twelfth Night.

A forged love letter from his mistress in hand, he struts across the bare stage of the Theatre@Schapiro, oblivious to the troupe of snickering pranksters—Sirs Toby (Titus VanHook) and Andrew (Brian Patterson), and the servant, Fabian (Peter Atkinson), all dressed in what can only be described as a frat brother’s idea of an ’80s luau outfit—who are hiding behind tiny benches, watching their plot take hold. Believing that his mistress has just declared her undying love for him, Malvolio happily saunters off-stage. Cue manic laughter, from the audience as much as from the characters on stage.

Greatness is only one of many things thrust upon the hapless characters of Twelfth Night, a comedy focusing on the misadventures of Viola—a shipwrecked woman who disguises herself as a male servant—her master, Orsino, and the countess Olivia. Accompanying this central trio (and their inevitable love triangle) are prankster cousins and maids, evil stewards and their yellow stockings, believed-dead brothers and an archetypically wise fool. Like all Shakespearean comedies, it ends happily for most, but not without a fair share of bumps along the way.

This MFA rendition of Twelfth Night was done in collaboration with the Young Company, a program dedicated to making abbreviated and accessible versions of Shakespeare’s plays for high school audiences. This performance of Twelfth Night took a trim 90 minutes; a run of the complete text usually clocks in at about three hours. Even with such a significant cut, however, the play retained its rich thematic and linguistic complexities. This was thanks largely to innovative blocking that took advantage of a black box theatre, clever music compositions, and the all-in, expressive, and physically comedic performance of a remarkably strong cast.

Perhaps more significant than this achievement, however, is how well this Twelfth Night got its audience, composed of high schoolers from three New York City schools, engaged. Throughout the whole play, they were laughing at the Shakespearean jokes, giggling at the clearly Tik-Tok inspired choreography, and clapping along to the series of musical numbers.

Performances worth a particular shout-out include the role of Feste, the Shakespearean fool, played by Othello Pratt Jr. Decked out in tie-dye denim from head to toe (An-lin Dauber’s costuming was truly inspired, and contributed to the fun, upbeat atmosphere of the piece), he was hardly ever on stage without a guitar in hand. Pratt’s sly, energetic performance convinced me that even though he was playing the fool, a common archetype in Shakespearean plays, he was actually the wisest of them all.

The soliloquies of Countess Olivia, played by Owala Maima, were also incredibly compelling. Maima used her whole body to express Olivia’s whirlwind of emotions through a series of kicks, flails, and even a couple of hip thrusts. Titus VanHook’s performance as Sir Toby Belch was also easily one of the funniest, his physical comedy and intentionally mechanical dancing earning the most, and loudest, laughs of any performance. These were elicited using references so catered to the high schoolers of today that even I, still technically a teenager, was too old to understand—the best I could do was recognize the Tik-Tok roots of their physical comedy. 

Throughout the play, the empty space afforded by the architecture of Theatre@Schapiro’s black space was used to great advantage. This is highlighted in the scene where Malvolio reads the fake love letter aloud while Sirs Toby and Andrew and the servant Fabian listen in. An-lin Dauber, the scenic (as well as costume) designer’s sparse stage included only two benches, a bar-like set-up, and a simple piano, so “hiding” in this scene meant lots of rolling around the stage behind Malvolio and comically ducking behind the few and too-small pieces of furniture. This only heightened the comedy of the scene, as Malvolio remained oblivious to his eavesdroppers, regardless of how poor their concealment was. 

Director Logan Reed also made use of this empty space for the more serious scenes, too. By far the most moving scene and one of the most well-done involved Viola performing a song for Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love, though he thinks she is a man. Here, she sits off to the side of the stage, playing the piano—the actress Yeena Sung’s clear, bell-like voice generating a fantastic sense of yearning—and leaving Orsino alone in a completely empty, void-like stage. This served to give a more penetrating power to the progression of his own emotions throughout the scene: both his initial lovesickness over Olivia and his increasingly conflicting feelings toward the seemingly male Viola. 

Both in this scene and across the rest of the play, the music of Twelfth Night, composed by musical directors Zak Houston and Marlena Mack, helped unite the audience with the characters—at many points, we were encouraged to clap along to the rhythm and participate in the revelry—and filled in the gaps left by the abbreviated text, allowing for faster and further character development than otherwise possible. 

The weight of the text of Twelfth Night comes largely from the underlying questions of how the complexities of gender and love play out, both in the love triangle of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino, and between Sebastian and Antonio. Is Orsino attracted to Viola even before realizing she is a woman? Is Olivia attracted to Viola, whom she thinks is a man, in part because of her still-present femininity? Is Antonio, whose entire plotline is driven by his own self-professed “love” for Sebastian, just a loyal friend, as the map of characters in the program would suggest, or an unrequited lover? 

I was pleased to see that the production did not decide that these questions needed to be diluted or simplified for a high school audience. Instead, the production leaned into these ideas, in particular with the depictions of Orsino and Antonio: most prominently, the decision to keep Antonio on stage for the end of the play, even after his speaking role ends, so that he watches and reacts to the wedding of Sebastian and Olivia, felt both moving and somewhat cruel. Such decisions complicated the conclusion of the play, asking the audience to consider if the final couplings were really as simple as the speedy marriages would suggest.

Along with the Tik-Tok inspired choreography, interactions with the audience (at one point in the Malvolio letter scene, Sir Toby hides by running into the audience and sitting in an open seat), and resources provided before and after the performance, like a program offering a map of characters and their relationships and a handout of Shakespearean insults passed as the audience exits the theater, such intentional ambiguity worked to engage the high school audience to the fullest extent.

Going into the performance, I was skeptical: similar programs offered at my high school to engage students in the arts never worked as well as they promised. But from the beginning, this performance seemed different. The students were dutifully studying the playbill before the performance started. Any time I glanced at the high schoolers around me, the vast majority were absorbed by the performance going on, leaning forward in their seats, visibly reacting to every joke and plot twist with a smile or a laugh. 

At the end of the play, the applause was fervent, and when the cast took their final bows, I found myself feeling just as I had when I had first read Shakespeare in my own freshman year of high school. It was a feeling of excitement; a feeling of recognition of the same themes, struggles, and humor, despite the many centuries past; a feeling of joy at coming, for the first time ever, face to face with the power of theatre. 

Learn more about the Young Company and attending the remaining performances here. While aimed at high schoolers, the 10:30 am weekday performances that run until March 13th generally have spare seats available to the public.

Image via Bwogger

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