Shakespeare & Company

A search for true identity in 'Twelfth Night'

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LENOX — William Shakespeare's comedy "Twelfth Night, or What You Will" is one of those plays the never gets old for Shakespeare & Company's Artistic Director Allyn Burrows.

"I really feel as many times as I've done it, I'm visiting it for the first time ... It just feels fresh," he said. "I think it's the power of how dense the language is and how it just really opens up and accesses, particularly this woman, Viola, who is on this journey, in front of us, and as it unfolds, is expressed through this extraordinary language. And then, all these other people are just as involved in this incredibly powerful journey.

"There's all this longing and yearning, miscommunications, expectations, what they think of themselves versus what they think of the world. I just find it really mercurial. The play is like mercury, you can't really get an entire handle on it because it's unfolding in front of you."

"Twelfth Night," which opens Tuesday in the Tina Packer Playhouse, runs through Aug. 4.

The play begins on the shores of Illyria where survivors of a shipwreck are straggling in from the sea. Viola, who has just discovered her twin, Sebastian, has been lost to sea, disguises herself as a young man named Cesario and joins the service of Duke Orsino. Disguised as Cesario, she becomes the Duke's most trusted confidant and is sent to woo Lady Olivia, whom he is smitten with, in his stead. All would be well, except that Viola has fallen for the Duke. Olivia, who couldn't be less interested in the Duke is busy mourning the death of her own brother. She pushes aside the advances of the Duke, but falls in love with Cesario, who is there on his behalf. Meanwhile, Olivia's household is in disarray, as her uncle and his crew delight in drink and song and drive the head butler, Malvolio, mad.

In this production, Burrows has set the play in 1959 in a dance hall on a boardwalk by the ocean.

"There are a lot of similar parallels, that sense of longing to the point that everything kind of blows open as it did in the '60s and everything kind of blows open in this play, as well," he said. "You can make a lot of comparisons with that period of time and it's also a really rich time, culturally and musically, with Motown just coming on the scene. ... Things were in transition. It was a transitional year. It was a pivotal year."

Burrows, who is directing the comedy for the first time, has acted in three different productions of "Twelfth Night," including a turn as Sebastian in the company's 1991 mainstage production.

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The opposite is true for Ella Loudon (Viola/Cesario), who prior to taking on the role, had no experience with the play save for reading it once or twice.

"To be honest, I feel like I have an advantage because I can really interpret what I would like to bring it and I have no outside influences," she said during a recent interview. "I didn't really know much but what I'd read before. So, this character, I thought, would be a breeze — I don't mean that in a literal sense — I thought there was a more straightforward motive to her. What I've discovered is — what I usually discover in every play — she's a human being and she's very complex."

That complexity is tied to Viola's decision to become Cesario, which on the surface is practical decision, she said, but also is what makes it so relevant to today's society.

"I know it's comedic, but it's also really heartbreaking. I know we see [characters dressing as the other gender] in a lot of Shakespeare's comedies, but there's something about this [decision], that brings it back to why it's still so relevant, especially today. It's a real challenge for a lot of people, working out who you are, because of outside influences.

"There's a real sense of there's this woman, a young woman, who is still figuring out who she is and she doesn't just have it the normal way of just growing up, she has it through the death of her brother, the death of her father, being in a new land, coming off a shipwreck, trauma, just pure trauma and also feeling things she's never felt before in terms of love. How can you interpret love when you're still trying to deal with all your trauma?"

While Viola's decision to live as a man isn't one based on gender identity, Loudon said, it still tackles some of the same experiences, as she learned from discussions with friends in the LGBTQIA community who have strong connections to this play.

"It really explores identity and the difficulty with wondering who you are. And that's a real struggle, it's really difficult, but, at the same time, [that struggle] is something we all can identify with," she said.

And there's also a struggle to not give up that new part of yourself, once you've found it.

"Something I've really noticed [with Viola] is that she can't, and I don't think she ever wants to be again, [be who] she was at the beginning," Loudon said. "She goes through a complete transformation. She doesn't want to — well, I'm playing her as being quite reluctant to — take off her man garb, not because she wants to stay a man, but because she wants to keep that strength she's discovered."


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