To Elizabethans, “Twelfth Night” was a time of mirth and merriment, a festive event marking transitions both agricultural and spiritual—from wintery quiescence to spring awakening, from the joyous celebrations of nativity and epiphany to the rigors of Lenten asceticism. Traditionally held on January 6th (the “twelfth day of Christmas”), it provided an occasion for feasting, sport, and revelry, as well as a temporary release from the rules of everyday life.
As with many such moments—one might compare our contemporary New Years’ Eve rituals—the holiday provided an opportunity for frivolity as well as reflection, for experimentation as well as examination, for hilarious buffoonery but also a sober accounting of one’s life, station, and relations.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (ca. 1601), showing at the Arthur Miller Theatre from October 30th to November 2nd, poses such questions amidst the expected witticisms, misapprehensions, and precarious couplings that characterize the playwright’s romantic comedies. It is, of course, a hoot—a rollicking, gender-bending play of remarkable wit and energy. It is also a deeply contemplative piece that traverses a vast emotional landscape.
We begin in Illyria, where a debilitating, melancholic hue suffuses the countryside. The reigning authority, Duke Orsino, yearns for Olivia, but the wealthy countess is disinclined to accept his affections. Bearing her own sorrows—a father and brother recently dead—Olivia appears immobilized by grief, having withdrawn from society and its many engagements.
Secluded within her expansive estate, Olivia has also relinquished household authority, allowing the opposing forces of order and anarchy—embodied in Malvolio, her puritanically priggish steward, and Sir Toby Belch, her enthusiastically inebriated uncle—to compete for domestic control. Here and throughout Illyria, excess has become status quo: it is a world stuck—in too much melancholy, too much hollow revelry, too much self-absorption.
Change arrives in the form of Viola, a shipwrecked matron bearing her own sorrows: separated from a twin brother, Sebastian, she fears him lost at sea. Stranger in a strange land, Viola vests herself in male attire, adopts the moniker “Cesario,” and seeks employment in Orsino’s court. As with many Renaissance transvestite comedies, the decision cheekily winks at Viola’s own dramatic origins: in Shakespeare’s era, this “her” playing a “him” would have been performed by a “him” (boy actor) impersonating a “her” (Viola) imitating a “him” (Cesario). But the disguise also—crucially—catalyzes a range of unpredictable behaviors and desires: Olivia falls for the “boy” Cesario, who falls for aristocratic Orsino, who pines for unattainable Olivia. In a memorable subplot, moreover, the pedantic Malvolio dreams of commanding his mistress’s bed, only to find himself victim of a particularly cruel—albeit uproarious—deception.
Possibility within Change
The result is a pulsing, exuberant play of identities lost and restored, a tour de force of dramatic energy that mingles sidesplitting humor with melancholy, resentment, and loss. Like the holiday to which its name alludes, Twelfth Night locates possibility within periods of transition and change, veering wildly from farce to pathos. Both party and hangover, the play forces audiences to consider the relation between the two. “It’s as if the comedy,” says director Kat Walsh, “is there to get us through the dark moments.”
As its revelries unravel, Twelfth Night leads us to deeper, more resonant questions of love, merriment, and pleasure. These include, Walsh suggests, the relations between “love and illusion,” as well as whether “we compromise our values or something within ourselves” in the pursuit of connection. Through its lonely aristocrats and sober stewards, intrepid youths and abandoned friends, foolish knights and witty fools, the play revels in mirthful possibility and play, all while asking us to consider what—or who—we sacrifice in the process.
Arthur Miller Theatre
Thursday, October 30th at 8 pm. With additional 8pm performances on Friday and Saturday, followed by a Sunday matinee (2 pm).
Purchase tickets in advance, online (wwa2ct.org) or by phone (734-971-2228). Online ticket sales cease five hours before each performance; remaining tickets can be purchased at the box office beginning
45 minutes before curtain..