Classic gender-bender

NSF makes bold statements and gets big laughs with Twelfth Night

Katie Sweeney and Andi Johnson in NSF’s <i>Twelfth Night</i>.

Katie Sweeney and Andi Johnson in NSF’s Twelfth Night.

Rated 4.0

Sometimes people forget that Shakespeare is not all stuffiness and drama. Sure, Shakespeare’s got a lot of important stuff to say, but the truth is, Ol’ Bill had a damn good sense of humor. It’s just a little harder to understand these days, what with all the thees and thous and forsooths.

If you’ve let a fear of Shakespeare keep you away from the theater, the Nevada Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night is just the kind of play to reintroduce you to the Bard. Under the outstanding directing abilities of Linnea L. Wolters, the NSF is now producing a version of this comedy that will make you laugh out loud, as well as stimulate your mind.

It’s hard to describe the main plot in a nutshell, but here goes:

Sebastian and Viola are twins—brother and sister—who both believe the other is dead. Viola dresses as a man, calling herself Cesario, to get a job as a servant of a duke, Orsino. Viola finds herself in love with the duke, but she can’t reveal her love because she is supposed to be a man. Orsino, meanwhile, is in love with a countess, Olivia, who does not love him back. When Viola, disguised as Cesario, delivers Orsino’s messages of love to Olivia, the countess finds that she is in love with Cesario instead.

Of course, Sebastian, the long-lost twin brother, shows up just in time to confuse the plot even further. Viola/Cesario is mistaken for Sebastian and vice versa. Chaos ensues.

Wolters’ vision takes this classic gender-bending tale up a notch—a few notches, actually. First, she sets the play in the 19th century instead of the Elizabethan era, a decision that emphasizes gender more strongly because of the clothing worn then. Second, she reverses the Elizabethan convention of men portraying women on stage by casting several male roles with women instead. Wolters herself plays arguably the most masculine role in the play: the ass-kicking, woman-wooing Sebastian.

The director deserves much credit for resurrecting the bawdiness of Shakespeare—Elizabethans weren’t exactly models of polite society, folks—and adding a little of her own. A priest who marries Sebastian and Olivia near play’s end has an interesting way of eating bananas, if you catch my drift. And Sebastian’s buddy Antonio, who is often referred to euphemistically as a “loyal friend,” is nothing short of hetero-flexible in Wolters’ production, if he’s not outright flamingly gay.

Wolters makes a bold statement about appearances—and what’s behind those appearances—and she presents this statement cleverly with her props. The most obvious device is the use of picture frames, which characters hold in front of their faces to accentuate bits of dialogue and action. (Speaking of appearances, Norrie Epstein, in The Friendly Shakespeare, writes: “There is profound resistance to accepting Shakespeare, the icon of Western civilization, as gay.” It’s an interesting thought to ponder while watching this production.)

In addition to Wolters’ outstanding direction, the cast is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen to date. Piper E. Major, especially, is a scene-stealer as Olivia’s fool, Feste, and she is well-utilized as the glue that holds the production together. As the fool, she delivers many of the biggest laughs, but as happens often in Shakespeare’s plays, the fool also holds the deepest insight.