Jazz music filled the room, played by a small ensemble band incorporated into the backdrop of the set. On stage sat the body and mast of a large sailing ship, partially sunk into the floor. Beyond the boat, the stage was largely barren, decorated only by grey arches matching the color of the floor, some green vines and streetlights. “Twelfth Night,” UNCC’s second Department of Theatre production of the year, was about to start. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Shakespeare, which I blame on my odd middle school experience of volunteering at the Renaissance Festival for three years. It can also partially be attributed to the lovely web series “Nothing Much to Do” (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) on YouTube. Thus, when I first heard that “Twelfth Night” would be performed this season, I was immediately excited. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The audience was packed.
The plot of “Twelfth Night” centers on one of two twins, a woman named Viola (Amberlin McCormick). After the ship she is traveling on wrecks, she decides to disguise herself as a man to obtain work from Duke Orsino (Marcus Fitzpatrick). Orsino is desperately in love with a noblewoman, Olivia (Jacqueline Williams), who is in mourning nearby. The feeling is not mutual. When Orsino sends Viola — in disguise as the male Cesario — to convince Olivia of his love, Olivia instead falls for the disguised Viola. This is only further complicated by Viola’s feelings of love for Orsino and the romantic goals of two of Olivia’s other suitors, a knight named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Michel) and Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Jack Murphy).
However, there is another level at play here as the B-plot provides some of the funniest moments and characters. Olivia’s household members, such as her uncle Toby (Dylan Ireland), her right-hand woman Maria (Isabel Gonzalez) and her “fool” Feste (EJ Williams), continually pull off elaborate deceptions on those around them. When the play begins, the object of one such deception is Sir Andrew. Toby has convinced poor Andrew that the knight has the ability to marry Olivia, despite the fact this will never be the case. Toby is simply trying to get as much money from him as possible. Similarly, the group (now containing the duped Andrew) later conspires to convince Malvolio (with forged letters a là “Much Ado About Nothing”) that Olivia loves him. This is viewed as an act of revenge for Malvolio’s pretentious and condescending attitude, with the primary goal being to embarrass Malvolio and then drive him slowly mad.
Every member of the cast was strong, from the main characters to smaller roles. The star of the show was McCormick as Viola. This was a hard role and she really nailed it. She sold the internal emotional struggle, landed the physical humor and created solid romantic chemistry with two love interests. Her banter with Williams as Olivia was fun and engaging to watch. Olivia herself found the right level of slightly-pompous-but-still-relatable needed to create a bond with the audience. Fitzpatrick as Orsino completely sold the misguided love-sick nature of the part. However, I have numerous words to say about the ensemble of Olivia’s home. Williams’ Feste was absolutely incredible, balancing remarkably fast and witty lines with fun, jazzy vocal performances. Murphy as Malvolio played a great comedic “villain” and clearly had tons of fun doing so. The audience had just as much fun watching him. Michel as Sir Andrew really nailed the awkward dopiness of the part, embodying the stereotype of the lovable idiot (very similar to Maxwell Glick’s portrayal of Mr. Ricky Collins in “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”). He also excelled at physical comedy, which was seen throughout the play and highlighted in a failed swordfight.
UNC Charlotte’s production of “Twelfth Night” was, by far, the best production I have ever seen in my time here. It was exceptionally well acted and had remarkable set and costume designs. Most importantly though, it completely connected with its audience. People gasped at unexpected turns, were invested in the love stories and spent huge portions of the play rolling in laughter. I have rarely seen that many people, especially young people, 1) so completely invested and interested in a play and 2) seen them this invested in Shakespeare. I’m pretty sure the girl in front of me laughed so hard she was crying. After talking with the director, Dr. Andrew Hartley, I went into this performance with admittedly high expectations. All of them were surpassed.
The question then becomes: why did this production connect so well with modern day audiences? My answer is three-fold. One, the play was reimagined in a format that allowed modern/new additions. The best example of this was a spontaneous musical rendition of “We Will Rock You” that put me at a complete loss for words (in a good way). Jazz music, modern dance moves and the contemporary feel of the production design also helped connect with the audience. Part two of what made it so special was the acting and line delivery. Oftentimes, Shakespeare’s writings can be associated with a feeling of stuffiness or thought of as too complicated to understand. The actors in UNCC’s production rise above that easily. The words didn’t feel like words from 400 years ago, they felt like the natural speech of the characters. They are filled with love, sarcasm, desperation and other human emotions. It almost never feels forced.
The third reason is that the play, despite its age, still wrestles with contemporary and relevant issues. “Twelfth Night’s” most obvious issue is gender, which is primarily explored as a limit to meaningful relationships. However, it also ties together gender and sexism. Orsino is unable to truly get to know Olivia because of how he (and the world around him) views women. She is just a romantic object to him and she knows that — and actively dislikes it. He builds a much more engaging and open relationship with Viola (as Cesario) because he treats her like he would a man. Further wrinkles emerge at the end of the play, in which Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Deandre Sanders). At the time of the marriage, Olivia believes Sebastian to be Viola’s male persona. However, when it is revealed that Viola is actually a woman and that Olivia has instead married Sebastian, she does not even seem particularly fazed. While Viola and Orsino both get their version of a happy ending, Olivia’s fate feels much more uncomfortable. She’s done the very thing she didn’t want to do with Orsino: marry a stranger.
This fall’s production of “Twelfth Night” was not only a highlight of UNCC theatre department productions, it was also one of the best Shakespeare performances I’ve come across to date. It had a stellar creative vision and succeeded in creating a strong and cohesive blend of set and costume design. The ensemble of college actors was absolutely incredible, taking on their roles with gusto and skill. The production felt modernized. It felt relevant. It had musical numbers and sword fights, love and comedy. What more could I possibly want in a play?