Twelfth Night, or What You Will

The Shakespearean canon is traditionally divided into three categories—comedies, tragedies, and histories—but as any student of the genre should know, and as any director must, there are sub-groupings that demand their due. For example, there is among the tragedies one play (Titus Andronicus) that was likely performed as a farce (according to Harold Bloom, among others), and among the comedies there is a good helping of satire.

Photo of (L to R) Sarah Dandridge as Viola and Aimee Phelan-Deconinck as Olivia
(L to R) Sarah Dandridge as Viola and
Aimee Phelan-Deconinck as Olivia
Twelfth Night, or What You Will uses a couple of standard Shakespearean farcical tricks—a pair of look-alike twins and an apparently misguided letter—to make fools of everyone. The play also produces a number of purely comical moments. But in order to get the play right, it helps if the director understands that certain characters are being satirized by the playwright.

Stratfordians—that is those who believe that a certain rustic named William Shakesper (spell it how you like, he couldn't get it the same way twice [which is a lot better than his daughter, who used an "X"!]) produced the greatest body of literature in the English language—generally overlook any such specifics because there is so little known about their man. Thus they are often left to argue that it doesn't make any difference who wrote the plays and sonnets, in order to award the grain dealer the mantle of greatness by default.

However, if one accepts the Oxfordian point of view—that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who, among other details, had one uncle who first translated Ovid into English (thus introducing pentameter), and another uncle who shared the distinction of introducing the sonnet form into English—then a number of facts fall into line for virtually every play.

Photo of (L to R) Matthew Erickson as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Dennis R. Elkins as Sir Toby Belch, and Damian Thompson as Fabian
(L to R) Matthew Erickson
as Sir Andrew Aguecheek,
Dennis R. Elkins
as Sir Toby Belch,
and Damian Thompson
as Fabian
In Twelfth Night, as was so often the case with de Vere, he used his special standing with Queen Elizabeth to mercilessly skewer his enemies. Without belaboring the issues (you can read Charlton Ogburn's definitive argument, The Mysterious William Shakespeare—The Myth and the Reality, Dodd, Mead, & Co., New York, 1984, or Charles Sobran's less detailed argument, Alias Shakespeare—Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time, The Free Press, New York, 1997, for details), it's important to note that the characters of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Malvolio represent specific targets for the real Bard's poison pen.

The reason this matters is that these fellows are caricatures, necessarily possessing fewer dimensions than bona fide characters. So, much of what they do will seem absurd, because by design they don't possess the credibility to accomplish the task before them. They will be seen as fools because it is de Vere's intent. For example, in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current production, director Robert Cohen has Aguecheek appear with sculpted red hair and a perfect large curl in the middle of his forehead, like something out of the pre-World War II Sunday funnies; Malvolio is so tall and thin, he makes Giacometti's sculptures look squashed; and Belch, well, hiccough, hish name shays it all. Malvolio may think he has the substance to woo Olivia, but we know better; Aguecheek is probably gay and won't admit it; and Belch is just along for the ride. They are comic relief, the butt of the author's jokes, while time passes for the main intrigue. And in this production, Sean Tarrant (Malvolio), Matthew Erickson (Aguecheek), and Dennis R. Elkins (Belch) do a good job of it. There stage business is engaging, if ridiculous.

Cohen may have discovered these nuances without being an Oxfordian, but many don't, and that brings a plethora of Shakespearean productions which are boring, consequently turning off audience members to these great works now and for the future.

Photo of Sean Tarrant as Malvolio
Sean Tarrant as Malvolio
Unfortunately, for this production, Aguecheek's and Belch's business doesn't end with their scripted absurdities. Part of the concept for this adaptation is a Caribbean setting. While the live calypso music is delicious ("If music be the food of love, play on.")—and Aldo Pantoja (guitar and charango), Brendan Ragan (steel drum), and Damian Thompson (vocals) are splendid—it is a meal at the expense of Feste, the Fool. In the original script, Feste (the playwright's stand-in, as we mentioned), who can do no wrong in the eyes of Olivia (Elizabeth I, Queen of England), provides the soundtrack as part of his overall commentary. Here, he has been marginalized, losing much of his bite. Was this necessary? Only if your adaptation doesn't align with the playwright's concept.

This glitch aside, the rest of the production is delightful. Viola, of course, is the model for Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Shakespeare In Love. When this play was performed in Elizabethan times, the role was played by a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. In this production, things are a less convoluted, as Sarah Dandridge need only remind us that she is a woman pretending to be a man, and this she does to intended effect, shying away from Olivia's advances whenever the poor countess gets too hot and bothered.

Aimee Phelan-Deconinck plays the amorously misguided Olivia for all it's worth, using her considerable charms in a hopeless cause, and drawing a healthy portion of laughter every time she makes Viola's skin crawl.

Photo of (L to R) Sarah Dandridge as Viola, Augustus Truhn as Orsino, and Aldo Pantoja as Curio
(L to R) Sarah Dandridge as Viola,
Augustus Truhn as Orsino,
and Aldo Pantoja as Curio
Olivia's counterpart, the Duke, Orsino, seems, at first, to have his gender antennae more attuned, as he relentlessly courts the countess through his newfound friend, Cesario (Viola in disguise). However, when he discovers the truth, Orsino (Augustus Truhn) can be seen blushing from the back of the spacious amphitheatre—a fine feat. In contrast to Olivia's unsolicited amorous advances, the obliviousness of Truhn's Orsino draws an entirely different set of conflicts from Dandridge's Viola (she is falling for him), which, in turn, enlists the audience's heartfelt desire for a resolution in the form of a reunion between Viola and her long-lost brother, Sebastian.

Despite a few difficulties around the edges, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will holds together and delivers an entertaining evening filled with poetry and laughs, albeit at the expense of de Vere's enemies (and friends as well). It runs through August 12th, in repertory with The Winter's Tale, Othello, and Unexpected Shaxpere! 303-492-0554.

Bob Bows


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