Merely Players embraces the humor of Shakespeare with ‘Twelfth Night’

Image courtesy of Merely Player's Facebook

“Twelfth Night” has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. From watching the movie with my family to memorizing monologues in high school drama class, I’ve come to appreciate the work as a heartfelt comedy punctuated with powerful moments. When I first heard that it was going to be performed at Vassar this fall, I was instantly excited. This particular production went up in the Shiva Theater and was sponsored by Merely Players, a student-run theater-producing organization that focuses on classical theater. While I already knew the plot well, I was happy to see this particular show take a new approach to the story I love.

The play details the events following a shipwreck where twins Sebastian and Viola wash up on different shores, separated from each other. Viola disguises herself as a man to work for Count Orsino, with whom she falls in love but cannot reveal her feelings for, due to her concealed identity. Meanwhile, Olivia, the object of Orsino’s affection, falls in love with Viola in her male disguise. Olivia’s uncle and her servants provide even more comic relief, playing pranks on each other and other characters. Because there are several storylines playing out at the same time, the audience gets to know all the characters in different ways. Director Ella Larson ’24 explained how the variety of people involved in the production drew her to this particular play. “Every single one of the characters has a personality, which isn’t always the case with Shakespeare…  With the histories, I don’t know who’s who, but with ‘Twelfth Night’ it’s very clear,” she said.

A key element of the humor in “Twelfth Night” is physicality. Characters hide behind bushes, run away from sword fights and flaunt questionable fashion choices. They dance drunkenly, forge other people’s handwriting and try to act natural in front of their crushes. While the meaning of Shakespeare’s words might be hard to grasp, these moments of slapstick humor are universally understood. This production captured these scenes nicely; the audience laughed out loud when the characters engaged in physical hijinks. One of the most classic moments of comedy in “Twelfth Night” and one that I have always loved is when the characters Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Fabian plot to prank Malvolio. In this production, the friends’ camaraderie shone through, and was a true highlight of the show. Yuchen Zhou ’23, who played Sir Toby, explained, “Part of the reason we looked like friends is [because] we are friends. During the rehearsal process, we kind of just became friends naturally, and there was that sense of emotion in real life also.”

Zhou was initially reluctant to audition for student theater shows because of his difficult course load this semester. But when he discovered that Merely Players was planning on doing “Twelfth Night,” he couldn’t resist joining the production.When I asked why he felt so strongly about “Twelfth Night” he explained, “The superficial reason is that it is just so funny. It’s a comedy, and I think it’s one of the funniest plays ever written by Shakespeare. So that’s kind of one of the obvious reasons: I laugh. So I like it a lot because of that. And I also like the notions being played with in this play.”

Some of these notions include the themes of gender and sexuality present in the play. Zhou referenced the fact that women weren’t allowed to perform onstage in Shakespeare’s time, meaning that men played female parts. “In this particular play, the character Viola is a female character but she disguises herself as a man, and so in Shakespeare’s time, that would be a male character playing a female character disguising as a male character, which is really, really funny,” he said. Larson echoed the importance of gender in this particular play: “Viola dresses up as a man to achieve her position, so with that there’s the prejudice against women that they can’t work for a man without being a man, which is stupid, to say the least. And then there’s also her feeling [that] she has to change herself to fit into society.” 

It is also very easy to read many of the events of “Twelfth Night” as Shakespeare trying to write a queer story in a way that was acceptable for the time—characters are conveniently allowed to fall in love with someone of the same gender when that person is in disguise, and, as cast members discussed, it’s possible to interpret a character “dressing up as” a different gender as someone who might identify as transgender today.

Every new adaptation of Shakespeare adds its own fresh ideas to the familiar texts, and this production was no exception. While the majority of the script remained unchanged, this particular team modernized several moments, my personal favorite of which was a sword fight set to “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. Additionally, several actors added modern, sometimes colorful, language to their lines, particularly Ben Turner ’23, who played Maria, and Robyn Lindsay ’25, who played Fabian. Larson explained, “We had a couple of people who were really gifted with ad lib, Robyn and Ben especially, and I told them to just go for it.” In fact, Larson prioritized the actor’s unique portrayals of their characters over a strict adherence to the original plot. She explained that in one performance, the ad libs ended up completely changing the traditional storyline: “In our original re-interpretation of the ending, Maria and Toby break up, and Maria ends up with Andrew. But on Saturday’s performance, [Turner and Lindsay] changed it so that Maria ends up with Fabian, which I actually really loved. So that was actually a really good way to end the run and I’m really pleased that that happened.”

I was surprised to find out that this had happened, given that I saw the show on Saturday and had no idea that the resolution that night was unplanned. Larson’s commitment to the fluidity of the story was also impressive, a choice that empowered the actors to connect with their characters and with each other and to really consider the choices each character would make. In fact, the connections between the people involved with “Twelfth Night” made this show special. Zhou had incredibly positive experiences with the production, saying, “As an international student, because English is not my native language, sometimes my pronunciation might be off, and I might get confused as to what people talk about, but none of them just chose to ignore me—instead they embraced me with all they could.” 

Larson, too, recounted fondness for the whole team who contributed to her directorial debut. Despite being the director, she was adamant that the best parts of the show came out of a group effort rather than an individual one. “This production was the result of everyone’s collaboration and hard work,” she said. “All the best decisions and funniest moments were ideas from the spectacular cast and crew.” The closeness of the team allowed them the opportunity to play and have fun with a timeless story, and the fact that the group was so tight-knit only enhanced their performance.

 

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