Twelfth Night is the Shakespearian equivalent of the screwball comedies that Hollywood made during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Done right, the comedies of William Shakespeare are that hilarious and the Utah Shakespeare Festival knows how to do these shows right.
Granted, Twelfth Night was written more than 400 years ago. But it’s audiences that have changed over that span of time, not the play. We’ve lost the ability to follow the tempo of iambic pentameter so much of this script’s lyric beauty goes right over the heads of modern theater-goers.
But don’t worry. The cast of the festival’s ongoing production of Twelfth Night has mastered the art of translating Shakespeare’s pretty poetry into broad physical comedy and they deftly telegraph all the punch lines with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. Even the subtle jokes the Bard penned come through, loud and clear.
The plot of Twelfth Night is so convoluted as to be practically inexplicable, but we’ll try anyway. Rich boy meets girl, only girl is dressed as a boy. Rich boy then sends girl (dressed as a boy) to woe rich girl for him. Rich girl then falls in love with girl (dressed as a boy). Finally, the twin brother of the girl (dressed as a boy) shows up and things really get weird.
If you’re confused now, think about how this worked in Shakespeare’s day. Women didn’t appear on stage back then, so female roles were performed by young boys. That would mean that the part of the girl (dressed as a boy) would have been played by a boy, pretending to be a girl, pretending to be a boy. And you think we have gender identity issues nowadays?
Behind the scenes, the rich girl’s jester, her wily maid, her mischievous uncle and a drunken suitor are all conspiring to get the rich girls’s grumpy head steward fired. This is supposed to be a sub-plot, only it kind of takes center-stage and ends up being the main plot. Relax, it all makes a more sense when you watch it ... Well, maybe not a lot more sense …
In the midst of all this confusion, USF director Sam White and his gifted performers somehow really make you care about all these dubious characters.
As Viola, Sarah Hollis is way too attractive to pass for a boy and doesn’t look all that much like Tristan Turner (who plays her twin brother) but they’re both so talented that the audience just winks and goes along with the joke.
Betsy Mugavero is Olivia, the object of the obsessive affection of Rene Thornton Jr., the Duke who picks exactly the wrong boy (girl?) to carry his love letters. Ms. Mugavero is hilariously overwrought when she gets bitten by the love bug and her confusion only escalates when the twin brother of the girl (dressed as a boy) shows up and she can’t tell the two of them apart.
Meanwhile, Olivia is amusingly oblivious to the coup d’etat being staged in her own household by the amazing Trent Dahlin as the jester Feste and his gang of merry pranksters (Katie Cunningham, Todd Denning and Josh Jeffers). Their plot plays out hysterically, but Chris Mixon gets the last laugh, stealing the show (and the final bow in the curtain call) as the hated steward Malvolio.
Long story short, Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most amiable, approachable shows and it’s being played to the hilt at the Utah Shakespeare Festival through Sept. 7. It would be a real shame to miss it.