Music despite everything: “Twelfth Night” at the Guthrie


Left to right: Sir Toby (Sally Wingert), Maria (Sarah Jane Agnew) and Sir Andrew (Joy Dolo) enjoy a late-night celebration in “Twelfth Night.” Photo by Dan Norman.

Alice Asch, Staff Writer

When asked about his production of “Twelfth Night” at the Guthrie, director Tom Quaintance mentioned his fondness for two lines in the poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert: “We must risk delight” and “we must admit there will be music despite everything.” 

Both of these statements ring true in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which begins when twins Viola (Emily Gunyou Halaas) and Sebastian (Michael Hanna) are separated in a shipwreck. Viola finds herself alone on the coast of Illyria, where she disguises herself as a man named Cesario and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino (Nate Cheeseman).

Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia (Sun Mee Chomet), but  Olivia refuses to be in the company of men. He decides to ask Viola to confess his love for Olivia. She does, and Olivia falls for Viola, who she believes is Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby, (Sally Wingert) a squire, Sir Andrew (Joy Dolo) and a servant, Maria, (Sarah Jane Agnew) attempt to persuade Olivia’s steward, Malvolio (Jim Lichtscheidl), that Olivia is in love with him. Maria writes a love letter in Olivia’s handwriting, which she then delivers to Malvolio. Since apparently including two unrequited love stories isn’t complicated enough for Shakespeare, Viola also falls for Orsino.

Sun Mee Chomet gives the strongest performance in the cast. She plays Olivia with an impeccably elegant composure, which makes the moments when she succumbs to her passions all the more jarring.

The first time Olivia displays any emotional vulnerability is after she meets Cesario. As soon as the latter leaves, Olivia collapses to the ground, overcome with lust. Remembering her former doubt about Cesario’s “personage,” she whispers the word to an empty stage, aghast that she asked what she now considers a ridiculous question. Watching Olivia kick herself for saying something silly is incredibly endearing, and it will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever made a fool of themselves in front of their crush. It’s a lovely reminder that this classic text transcends the limits of time and remains poignantly relevant for audiences.

On their website, the Guthrie claims that though there “may be contemporary elements” in the production, the story “isn’t set in the modern world.” The costumes, designed by Ann Closs-Farley, are the most noticeable slices of modernity. Olivia wears silk gowns that could very well be found in one of today’s shopping malls, Sir Andrew dons glimmering sequined suits and Sir Toby dresses mainly in plaid. Although people in Shakespeare’s age would have exhibited vastly different styles, Closs-Farley’s clothes never feel out-of-place. Another fascinating characteristic of this rendering of “Twelfth Night” is the fact that there is a band onstage at all times, regularly providing pleasant musical interludes.

The shallow pool of water that covers about half of the stage floor is a striking feature of Naomi Dawson’s otherwise minimalist set. It’s easy to forget this pond exists until someone accidentally drops a flower or a shoe with a startling plop. Perhaps the water symbolizes the harsh truths that lay hidden just beneath the surface of our immediate experience with reality, or it may simply be a reminder of the characters’ human frailty. Indeed, the players who take themselves the least seriously frequently splash through the water, at ease with their own immorality. The more tightly-wound Olivia, however, tends to avoid stepping in the pond.

There is no shortage of humor in “Twelfth Night,” but underlying it all is genuine tragedy. Much of the comedy relies on the use of dramatic irony — when the audience knows things that the characters don’t — regarding who really loves who. This is objectively funny, but a little heartbreaking, too. We laugh when Malvolio swoons over Olivia, believing that she wrote him a romantic letter, for we know that it was actually Maria. And yet it is impossible not to pity Malvolio, so confident in his emerald green blazer and bright yellow stockings, certain that he is loved by this beautiful woman.

Eventually, we realize that each of the major characters are in love with illusions. Just as Malvolio believes Olivia is pining after him, Olivia believes Viola is the male Cesario. The set’s second distinctive trait, a single wooden swing, plays a pivotal role in emphasizing the presence of false pretences. When Malvolio reads Maria’s letter, he sets the piece of paper on the swing and pushes it from side to side, implying that for him, true love is eternally out of reach. His tender heart is, both metaphorically and literally, being taken for a ride.

At one point, Viola muses on Olivia’s love for her, noting “she would better love a dream.”

But is there anything wrong with loving a dream? Can we fault these characters for enjoying brief happiness, even if it is predicated on lies? Late one night, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria throw a wild party on the pond. It’s a gorgeous sight: the three of them prancing around in the water without a care in the world, set against a backdrop of twinkling amber fairy lights and surrounded by red balloons suspended in midair. When Malvolio yells at them to be quiet, Sir Toby retorts, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

There is no harm, he suggests, in allowing people to engage in guilty pleasures, even if these indulgences are impractical and serve no purpose besides bringing fleeting bliss. We must risk delight.

Later, reflecting on recent events, Sir Toby observes, “If this were to be played upon a stage now, I could condemn it to improbable fiction.”

Maybe this is Shakespeare’s way of winking at us: he knows that his story is not realistic, but this doesn’t concern him. I would argue that dismissing “Twelfth Night” as improbable fiction would be a mistake, for falling in love with illusions happens to the best of us.

It’s extremely comforting to witness these people’s misadventures on a stage, comforting to know that even when it is all over and each character realizes that they’ve been made the fool, the band will again begin to play, assuring us that there is always room for one more song. There will be music despite everything.

  “Twelfth Night” is playing at the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage until March 22. If the narrative sounds intriguing, the show is also coming to the Macalester stage at the end of April.

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