Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Twelfth Night
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's recent review of Right Now

The Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
There are times when a production presents a singular challenge by captivating the audience so thoroughly that a reviewer might forget to step back and take note of specific aspects of the show. Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Twelfth Night, directed by Tyrone Phillips, is rife with such welcome problems. In fact, its successes are so emphatic that it renders the very familiar play fresh to the point that it is almost unrecognizable.

Although it would be a mistake to underestimate Phillips' influence, every element of the staging is in individually expert hands brought together in a cohesive vision. Visually, the audience is drawn in immediately by the scenic and projections design by Sydney Lynne and Mike Tutaj, respectively, as well as Xavier Pierce's lighting design. Together, these elements transport us not only to the Caribbean, but to a time and place so psychologically, socially, and naturally disrupted that both the breezy, uproarious comedy and the genuinely poignant drama are believable.

Christine Pascual's costume design revels in the mix of culture and class. Pascual's approach takes as much care with the half-dozen ensemble members we see in a vibrant, thirty-second street scene depicting Illyria before the storm as she does with Olivia's progression from high-brow, in-your-face mourning to glorious, bare-shouldered bride. The sound design by Willow James and music direction by Robert Reddrick complete the immersive design, blending reggae and R&B seamlessly into Phillips' fully realized world.

The play itself is, of course, about grief, loyalty, love, and above all, gender. Certainly, Phillips and the cast have a ball playing with gendered power dynamics, but the show belongs to its women.

Christiana Clark infuses Olivia with deliciously heightened emotion, bringing humor and ferocious presence to a character who can easily fade into a plot device. Clark's success here receives vital support from Arielle Leverett as Olivia's gentlewoman and Danielle Davis, who is a hilarious powerhouse as Maria.

As Viola, Jaeda LaVonne is grounded, earnest and remarkably believable, even in the play's most credulity-straining moments. Her physicality as Cesario conveys with great facility that she is a young woman playing at being a young man, but largely pulling it off. This further pays off opposite Justen Ross's Sebastian, as the two performances genuinely sell the idea that they might be mistaken for one another. Moreover, LaVonne's chemistry with Yao Dogbe as Orsino makes the audience crave more interaction between the two characters, even as they relish the sparks that fly between her and Clark.

Phillips makes no distinction between the romantic and comedic subplots, and wisely so. The attention that Phillips pays to Sir Toby Belch (Ronald Conner), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Alex Goodrich), and Fabian (Shelby Lynn Bias) pays terrific dividends, particularly when the trio mixes it up with Davis's Maria as well as Israel Erron Ford's Feste. The performances individually and in collaboration are simply bursting with joy and fun.

Last, but certainly not least, Paul Oakley Stovall as Malvolio plays every comedic beat perfectly, whether he is being absurdly uptight or ridiculously calculating and preening. Just as impressive, though, he is effectively devastating when he finds himself imprisoned as a mad man.

Twelfth Night runs through November 26, 2023, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, Courtyard Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 312-595-5600.