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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Twelfth Night
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Significant Other, Superman Becomes Lois Lane, The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas

Joy Dolo, Sally Wingert and Sarah Jane Agnew
Photo by Dan Norman
Early on, in act one, scene one of William Shakespeare's masterful comedy Twelfth Night, Count Orsino declares "If music be the food of love, play on." This line has become an often used aphorism extolling the power of music to kindle romance. The Guthrie Theater's current production of Twelfth Night employs, music, insanely terrific comic performances, glorious design work on all fronts, and inspired direction by Tom Quaintance as the food of love. In this case, though, it is not love of a paramour, but of theater itself. It is impossible to imagine anyone sitting through this production not leaving with feet a few feet off the ground, enamored with the power of theater to lift us out of the mire and feel wonderful about life.

Quaintance makes his Twin Cities directorial debut, though he has collaborated in the past with the Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Quaintance conceived of this Twelfth Night as a free-floating frolic, unattached to any particular time or place. While the setting in Illyria is stated in the text, nothing in Naomi Dawson's fantastic stage set indicates a particular cultural or geographic provenance.

Similarly, the costumes spawned from the imagination of Ann Closs-Farley are a giddy mash-up of different styles and eras, from seductively flowing chiffon gowns to Edwardian suits with a flash of mod styling, to the burlesque-inspired getup worn by Feste, the fool. He propels the play from the starting line to its finish like a bullet train fueled by a potent blend of Shakespeare's brilliant wit and fully committed performances by every member of the cast, with seamless flow between the actors and the physical elements on stage.

Twelfth Night is a comical lark that skewers romance, courtly manners, social hierarchy, and gender-based roles. It opens with a wild storm at sea, fabulously staged with Yi Zhao's lighting, Sartje Pickett's sound effects, and a sheet of canvas across the entire rear of the stage that rises, like magic, to form treacherous waves. In the mayhem. Twins Viola and Sebastian—who, though of different sexes, resemble one another—are separated. Viola lands on shore in Illyria and fears her brother is dead. With no other way to take care of herself, she disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and gains employment in the service of Count Orsino. Her, or his, duties include delivering missives from Orsino to fair Olivia, declaring his love for her.

Olivia has no interest in Orsino and begs Cesario to dissuade his master from his efforts. However, Olivia does find herself surprisingly drawn to the soft-spoken, kind and clever Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola is rapidly falling desperately in love with Orsino—hence, a classic love triangle, complicated by Viola's masquerade as a man. It turns out that Sebastian did survive the storm. When he too shows up in Illyria, his visage very much like Viola's, especially with her manly haircut and her attire, further complications are inevitable.

A secondary—but barely so—plot involves Olivia's dipsomaniac uncle, Sir Toby; Sir Toby's bumptious friend Sir Andrew; Olivia's lady's maid Maria; and Olivia's priggish servant Malvolio. The latter is tricked into believing that Olivia is in love with him, giving way to another of Shakespeare's immortal lines, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." Unfortunately for Malvolio, achieving greatness is not in the cards, though the hilarity around the whole enterprise is most fortunate for us.

The cast of the Guthrie production is composed entirely of Twin Cities-based actors, every one a treasure. At the center of it all is Emily Gunyou Halaas as Viola. Gunyou Halaas absolutely shines, juggling Viola's impossible love for her master, Olivia's unwelcome entreaties to her, and the need to maintain, at all costs, the illusion of being Cesario. She conveys both strength and vulnerability, making a case that both are present in man and woman alike. Nate Cheeseman is spot-on as her master and the object of her desire, Orsino. He is convincingly besotted with Olivia, his male ego hinged on her approval, then shows us his uneasiness as he begins to feel warmth—or something more than warmth—toward his new man servant. As Olivia, Sun Mee Chomet, looking radiant, captures the delicacy of a woman in mourning at the top of the play, then deliciously transforms into an aggressive pursuer of the one man who has lit a flame within her.

The production boasts five kings of comedy—though three of them are women—and all are beyond wonderful. Sally Wingert is hilariously droll as Sir Toby, always muddled by his constant sips of brandy and dishing out misguided advice. Jim Lichtscheidl is impossibly repressed as Malvolio, then delights as he breaks his own mold with riotous attempts to woo Olivia. Joy Dolo is a blow-hard Energizer bunny as Sir Andrew, able to mine laughs from lines that in other hands might just lie there. She repeatedly reduces the entire house to gales of laughter.

Luverne Seifert's Feste the fool is, as is often the case, more astute than anyone else. That gives him just cause to issue commentary on the proceedings that is both insightful and comical, in addition to delivering generous servings of physical comedy. Top honors, though, go to Sarah Jane Agnew's Maria. Starting off prim and officious, when she lets loose there is no stopping her as she makes the stage set into her personal playground.

Michael Hanna as Sebastian and Tyson Forbes as Antonio complete the cast, making their own special marks in roles that have less stage time. Hanna conveys Sebastian's astonishment upon falling into a ready-made love nest. Forbes plays the faithful friend to Sebastian, whose expressions of devotion could be interpreted as homoerotic. As delivered by the gangly Forbes, they are the words of an admiring friend. Forbes and Hanna also serve as the show's musicians, along with assists from other cast members, in a wide range of musical styles.

Twelfth Night is being presented on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. The set is an accomplice to the cast in creating so much raucous fun. In its center is a shallow pool of water, seemingly for no particular reason, but which creates onstage magic as actors playfully splash, tromp through it to express disdain, stomp in to display aggression, and more. A wide swing, lowered and raised on a whim, is also used in a multitude of delightful ways. A boardwalk around the pool and platforms raised behind it provide the more stationary playing areas, used with utmost invention by Quaintance.

By the way, if you've ever wondered why this play is titled Twelfth Night, as that phrase is never mentioned nor do twelve nights pass in the course the play, here's one answer. It seems Shakespeare wrote the play, in 1601, to be a "Twelfth Night" entertainment—that is, to be performed on the twelfth night of Christmas, also called the epiphany. Twelfth night celebrations typically involved dress up, such as servants dressing as their masters, and men and women dressing as the other. Twelfth Night was a perfect fit for such festivities. Its first recorded performance was February 2, 1602, at Candlemas, which was at the time considered the formal end of Christmastide.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies, and this production puts to use all of the Guthrie's resources, making it an example of what theater looks like when everything is done right. It is the epitome of comedy—funny, funny, funny, but with enormous heart. Every piston in this production not only fires, they shoot off fireworks.

Twelfth Night runs through March 22, 2020, at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $25.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Military personnel, veterans and their families 15% discount per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15–30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00-$25,00, cash or check only. Free admission for members of Dramatists Guild of America with membership card. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Tom Quaintance; Set Design: Naomi Dawson; Costume Design: Ann Closs-Farley; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design/Composer: Sartje Pickett; Movement Director: Carl Flink; Assistant Music Director: Michael Hanna; Resident Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Resident Voice Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Resident Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; ; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Jane E. Heer; Assistant Director: Anna J. Crace; Design Assistants: Katelynn Barker (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound)

Cast: Sarah Jane Agnew (Maria), Nate Cheeseman (Orsino/officer), Sun Mee Chomet (Olivia)/Valentine), Joy Dolo (Sir Andrew/Captain), Tyson Forbes (Antonio/musician), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Viola), Michael Hanna (Sebastian/officer/musician), Jim Lichtscheidl (Malvolio/Curio), Luverne Seifert (Feste), Sally Wingert (Sir Toby).