On Monday, I saw my 2nd play in DC. It feels a little unbelievable that I've been here for over 3 months and have only seen 2 plays. But priorities change. And theatre is an expensive habit. Inversely finding ways to make it less expensive is time consuming.
So I went to see Twelfth Night at Shakespeare Theatre Company with a group of other volunteers. So first of all I need to explain my personal history with the play Twelfth Night. It was the third play (out of 35) that I saw when I studied abroad in London my junior year. I was going for my Shakespeare class. I had been given the script something like the day before and requested to read it. Needless to say, I'd didn't get it all read before I went to the play. And I didn't expect this production of a Shakespeare play I didn't know to become my most perfect theatre going experience. I fell in love with the production, and with the play itself. Twelfth Night may be my favorite Shakespeare play.
And last year, I saw a production of it in Seattle that I liked enough, but didn't love. And I thought maybe my love for Twelfth Night was always going to stay with that elusive perfect night of theatre.
So I'm not entirely sure what my expectations for Monday night were. It was opening night. We got 10 dollar tickets for the third row, which ended up being perfect. The theatre itself was amazing. It was a proscenium stage, which isn't always my favorite, but the theatre was new, had great capabilities and I doubt there was a bad seat in the house. Talk about good design of a theatre space.
Every time I go see a play, I try to take a little time to think about why I liked it or not. What makes theatre "Good?" Taste is so subjective. You can think a play had excellent actors, set, costume and production values and not enjoy it at all. What is a barometer of good theatre?
So this is all building up to the fact that I adored this production of Twelfth Night, almost as much as the elusive London production.
The acting was wonderful. The woman who played Viola made a delightful boy. She had a quality sort of reminiscent of Julie Andrews, and it was charming.
This production also made a lot of sense. The actors seemed to understand every word they were saying and this leads to the audience feeling like they are not even speaking in verse. It honestly can feel like modern English. Although to be fair, I know the play pretty well, to the point where I can anticipate jokes, so it would be a very bad sign indeed if I couldn't understand what they were saying.
But more than just making the language accessible, they made sense of a few plot things that don't always follow. The scene where Olivia and Viola meet for the first time, was played with five women dressed identically and veiled, kneeling in prayer. So when Viola cannot tell who is the lady of the house, it makes sense! I've seen this played with just Viola, Olivia and a Maria who is clearly a servant, and the effect was unintentionally goofy.
I think one of the reasons I like Twelfth Night so much is that the characters find themselves in difficult positions not because they are unlikable jerks, or unintelligent, but because of something inescapably human: death. Viola and Olivia are both mourning the death of a brother. And the whole main plot rotates around this sorrow. It steeps the play in a kind of melancholy of longing and also of unrequited love. Viola finds herself in a very dangerous position. She has crashed on a new land, and believes her brother is dead. She seems to have some money but no family, connections or prospects. So she does something both logical and brave: dresses as a boy and goes to work for the duke of Ilyria. What other options did she really have? Interesting the play doesn’t dwell on this problem.
However, this cross dressing creates some serious problems. A woman falls in love with a woman (disguised as a boy). Viola, disguised as a boy, falls in love with the Duke. And in turn the Duke sort of loves this boy Viola is pretending to be. One single person cross dressing for a very good reason throws the entire universe of the play off kilter.
I find the love story between Duke Orsino and Viola to be especially poignant. The reveal that it is in fact acceptable for Orsino to be n love with Viola, because she is in fact a woman, may be a little too convenient. Especially with some of the commentary this production seemed to be making with some of the same sex attractions. But their attraction and love for each other felt genuine and the moment where Viola is revealed to be a woman had a delightful sense of discomfort, along with the joy.
Maybe one of the reasons I enjoy Twelfth Night so much is its musicality. How could I not love something that begins, “If music be the food of love, play on.” And Twelfth Night seems to contain more songs and lend itself better to music than almost any other Shakespeare play. This production had a small orchestra and a young soprano on one of the side balconies, and their use of music was effective. The actor who played Feste, the fool, was also a wonderful singer and had a good sort of magnetic gravity to him. And as he ends the play with a song, this is especially important.
So ultimately, have I made any progress on my quest to find out what makes a play good? I don’t know. I know what I enjoy, and can anticipate what I am likely to enjoy, but I don’t think I will ever be able to figure out the formula to it.
I could go on and on (and sort of did). But I'll end my thoughts here. Going to this play reminded me again why I love theatre, and maybe even why it was my major. I’m also happy to know that I in fact do love the play “Twelfth Night” and that love doesn’t end with just one particularly moving production.