Twelfth Night

Great River Shakespeare Festival

June 2013

Tarah Flanagan, Corey Allen

Donny Repsher, Brian White (background)

“Christmas in July?

“That’s what awaited me as I escaped from a muggy afternoon into the cool Main Stage Theatre at Winona State University. . .  home to the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which is celebrating its tenth season this summer with productions of Twelfth Night and Henry V.

Twelfth Night provides the early season’s greetings.  Set in Edwardian England to a magical Jack Forbes Wilson score. . .  it unfolds on a stage that includes snow, a Christmas tree, poinsettias and wrapped packages.  But the best present of all is this production itself, which captures the spirit of play and the underlying sadness in the Bard’s greatest comedy.

“We’re immediately given both, thanks to director Paul Mason Barnes’ addition of a prologue.  As the cast sings “In the Bleak Midwinter,” we witness Christmas morning as experienced by a young Viola, Sebastian and Olivia, along with their fathers and Olivia’s brother, who will die before the Twelfth Night we know begins.

“In a play with so many characters on the verge of going mad, that opening reminds us that even in the world of comedy, one can’t banish the passage of time or the specter of death – a point that Jonathan Gillard Daly will later drive home as Feste, when he closes the play by singing that ‘the rain it raineth every day.’

“But if the festival of Twelfth Night marks the end of the holiday season and the imminent return to a wet workaday world, it is also a night during which topsy-turvy revels can exuberantly upend the status quo, unleashing repressed desire and disclosing who we truly are, often to hilarious effect.

“The master of the revels in Olivia’s household is Sir Toby, and Michael Fitzpatrick makes the most of this opportunity to lead pranksters including Sir Andrew (Chris Mixon), Maria (Laura Jacobs), Fabian (Brian White) and Daly’s Feste.

“Barnes’ ingenious staging of their battles with the puritanical Malvolio (a terrific Christopher Gerson) is not just side-splittingly funny. Particularly in the famous scene where Malvolio is duped, it is also psychologically acute: Sir Toby and his minions “hide” in plain view, underscoring how blind the preening Malvolio is to all but his own narcissistic self-regard.

“Malvolio isn’t the only one in Illyria with this problem.  Although not nearly as far gone, Orsino (Corey Allen) and Olivia (Stephanie Lambourn) are also trapped within themselves.  Allen’s fatuously self-involved Orsino is in love with the idea of being in love; Lambourn’s girlishly immature and self-indulgent Olivia willfully isolates herself from love.

“When he isn’t showcasing his pipes in one of his songs, Daly’s shrewd and keen-witted Feste archly pricks the pretensions of Illyria’s duke and countess.  But it’s Tarah Flanagan’s charismatic Viola who sets these arrested aristocrats free from the prison house of the self.

“The petite, short-haired Flanagan easily passes as a disguised boy – allowing Allen’s tall Orlando to literally overlook her, missing her huge heart.  Flanagan may movingly compare Viola’s hidden passion to ‘Patience on a monument,’ but her big eyes and husky voice could melt stone.

“Barnes is adept at using the size difference between Allen and Flanagan to generate laughs, but once again his cleverly playful touches make a serious point: Holiday presents shouldn’t be judged by their size or wrapping, any more than Twelfth Night is just another comedy.  Come open the gift of this production for yourself and you’ll understand.  It’s the complete package.”

    Mike Fishcer

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“On Friday afternoon, I saw a rare thing indeed.  I saw a perfect performance of Twelfth Night.  I’ve always admired the productions put on by the Great River Shakespeare Festival, but I was even more impressed than usual with Director Paul Barnes’ Twelfth Night.  The usual adjectives describing a Great River Shakespeare Festival performance—magnificent, marvelous, compelling, brilliant—are inadequate.  Perfect is the only word.

“I’ve had a checkered past with Twelfth Night.  In short, any production had a very long way to go to convince me of the humor, significance, and value of the play. The Great River Shakespeare Festival’s production tore up all my doubts and left them in the dust by the side of the road a thousand miles away.

“The production avoids every trap into which it could have fallen.  Its melancholy parts are poignant and deep, but they do not tip the balance of the play into despondency.  The humorous parts are hysterically funny, but they never descend into pointlessness.  Malvolio’s imprisonment is treated seriously but not with sadistic cruelty, and his response is measured, not casting a pall over the reconciliations at the end of the play.

“Moreover, every single role was cast and played perfectly.  Secondarily, the music was carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the play as a whole.  Sixth and lastly, the set was beautifully constructed.  Thirdly, the choreography—particularly of the scene in which Malvolio finds the letter—was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed.  And, to conclude, the Great River Shakespeare Festival has produced a perfect Twelfth Night.

“I could go on for days about the magnificent details of this production, but I need to curb my enthusiasm and keep myself to mentioning just a few small points.

“The production is set in Victorian England at Christmas time.  The costumes are generally dark and somber, fitting the mourning and melancholy that are, in part, the play’s concerns.  That somber look is balanced by the music and revelry.  The characters (particularly those affiliated with Sir Toby Belch) occasionally break into a rowdy wassail, perfectly complementing the play’s more somber moments.  The show also made incredible use of the folk song ‘The Water is Wide’ throughout.  It became a theme of separation and eventual reunion and reconciliation.

“Jonathan Gillard Daly’s Feste was simply superb.  His singing voice and his acting are at the topmost level, but he casually and seemingly effortlessly delivers Feste’s witty lines and songs.  They felt completely comfortable and sustaining.  The music for Feste’s songs was written for this production, and it was magnificent.

“Daly’s Feste is also one who knows much.  When he exits in Act I, Scene v, he gives Malvolio a prophetic glance as he says “the fool shall look to the madman” (I.v.137-38.)  He also starts saying “Sir” with great, incredulous emphasis during an early exchange with Viola-disguised-as-Cesario.  This gave a great and pleasing wisdom to the fool.

“I was completely floored by Christopher Gerson’s Malvolio.  He played the sour and demanding steward with empathy, bringing out his honest sense of duty to Olivia to balance his less-pleasing characteristics.  And he played Malvolio’s imagination—both before and after his discovery of the letter—so vividly that we saw his every thought.

“Gerson was able, in the scene where the letter instructs him to smile, to keep the audience in hysterical laughter for three full minutes without saying a word.  The experience was unparalleled—although we laughed nearly as much when he re-entered in yellow stockings (and a costume likewise vibrant with yellow).  The dark and somber costuming and set design would be worth it if it only served as a contrast to Malvolio’s yellow outfit.

“Sir Toby Belch (Michael Fitzpatrick) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Mixon) formed an astonishing pair, particularly when joined by Fabian (Brian White) and Maria (Laura Jacobs).  Their comic timing could not have been better.  Especially (but not exclusively) in the trickery scene, they hit the laugh lines and actions absolutely right—particularly when Fitzpatrick, Mixon, and White had to disguise themselves suddenly as a nativity scene under the Christmas tree behind which they had been hiding.  Genius.

“Tarah Flanagan’s Viola was moving and funny and touching and remarkable.  She was able to convey the bifurcated nature of her position—wishing to serve Orsino in his wooing of Olivia while desiring his love for herself—in a deeply sympathetic way.  She was also able to banter with Feste, critique (and compliment) Olivia, and react to the news that her brother was still alive in extraordinary complex ways.

“Too many other marvelous things happened in this performance to list, let alone to detail.  I wish I could say more about the role of The Caroler (played by Doug Scholz-Carlson), who, Chorus-like, introduced us to the background of the play and served as something of a foil to Feste; the distribution of Christmas ornaments during the curtain call—and Malvolio’s reception of only a lump of coal; the slapstick surrounding the fight between Viola and Sir Andrew; the decisions Paul Barnes made as director; and the power Corey Allen brought to the role of Orsino.  Instead, I must on your imaginary forces work to fill that in—or, better yet, you can see the show yourself.

“I do admonish each of you to get to the Great River Shakespeare Festival this year to see a perfect Twelfth Night.”


“Where Shakespeare is concerned, one often has the urge to reach for a thesaurus or dictionary to catch the meaning of a word now and then.

“But in the case of the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night, one needs a thesaurus to come up with new words of praise.

“‘Magical’ comes first to mind, followed by ‘marvelous,’ ‘endlessly entertaining,’ ‘an absolute treat,’ and… we’ll stop there for now.  However, if you haven’t yet found a reason to journey to Winona to attend one of the Great River’s plays, Twelfth Night is well worth the trip.  This production, directed by Paul Barnes, is book-ended by an especially affecting opening and a warm-hearted closing.  In between the laughs come with great frequency.

“At the start, we gaze upon a scene from a Victorian-era Christmas, as Doug Scholz-Carlson sets up for us this tale of mixed-up identities and misplaced declarations of love.  As Scholz-Carlson sings ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ we are reminded that the title of Twelfth Night comes from the tradition of staging a night of theatrical free-for-all at the end of the Christmas season.  That is what Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night for, but it’s doubtful he could have imagined this lovely opening scene of snow falling from the sky and children unwrapping Christmas gifts.

“As for the comedy, some of the finest work in this show is done by actors known to Great River audiences for their ability to make being funny seem easy and natural:  Christopher Gerson, Michael Fitzpatrick and Chris Mixon.  Fitzpatrick and Nixon always work well together, with Mixon putting his gift for physical comedy to especially good use here.  Gerson is gleefully crazed as a stuffy steward who finds it impossible to crack a smile.

“Tarah Flanagan shines as Viola, who was separated from her twin brother in a shipwreck and disguises herself as a boy to work in the household of Orsino, played by Corey Allen.  Orsino seeks the hand of the countess Olivia, played by Stephanie Lambourn, who does so much with side glances and fleeting facial expressions.

“There is hilarity aplenty, but Barnes never lets it overshadow either Shakespeare’s language or the fine control exhibited by his cast.  And despite the happy ending, there is a bittersweet feeling as the actors take their bows.
Perhaps it’s because of the Christmas carols in July,  More likely, it’s due to the sensation that we’ve just witnessed something truly special.”

    Tom Weber

    Rochester Post Bulletin


What I learned. . .

I don’t think I’ve ever had a production reviewed as being “perfect,”

but to my delight and surprise, several people remarked in person and in print that they found the production of Twelfth Night I directed at the Great River Shakespeare Festival to be just that: perfect.

Knowing all too well that if you believe the good ones, you’ve got to believe the bad – and that karma has a way of getting you the moment you become inflated with your good reviews and alleged accomplishments. But more than that, knowing that Shakespeare’s plays are simply too deep and too complex to achieve perfection in their realization, I tried to take these comments with a mix of gratitude and humility.

And sure enough, after three weeks away, when I returned to Winona and saw the production again, I was more than slightly aware of its imperfections and flaws – and of the things I had missed.  Not necessarily glaring errors, but certainly apparent enough.

Oddly, this was my directorial debut with the script.  It’s a play that’s been part of my life since 1974 when I first saw Jim Edmondson’s magical production on the Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. . .  If you’re in the “Shakespeare biz” it’s impossible to ignore or avoid Twelfth Night.  But why would you want to?  It’s considered by many to be Shakespeare’s best comedy, and whether or not you agree, it’s a story that holds mysteries, rewards, and challenging balances for directors, designers, actors, and audiences to explore and discover.

Although there are a few textual references that lead us to believe the play is set in spring, like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, I’d done plenty of spring-blossoming-into-summer treatments of his plays, and was intrigued by the notion of setting Twelfth Night in winter, at the time of the play’s title.  Hardly an original idea, but one that I like to think paid off in many ways.  

Tweflth Night is permeated by a real sense of loss. . .  a sense of mourning that derives from Olivia’s observing an extended period of mourning for the deaths of her brother and her father.
But there’s also Orsino’s mourning for his unrequited love of Olivia as well as Viola-Cesario and Sebastian’s mourning for the imagined loss of their twin sibling, and several characters’ mourning for love that will also go unrequited.  Developing that major underpinning of the story became key to the production; in talks with Eric Stone (set designer) and Tim Dial (costume designer), we decided to give the world as dark a palette as possible.  This may have been the first production of a comedy by Shakespeare I have directed in which so many people were dressed in dark colors in the final scene. Other than Malvolio's flamboyant shock of transformative yellow in the cross-gartering scene, the only real slices of color were provided by two bright red poinsettias placed downstage left and right on sittable-size pedestals at the top of the play; all else was grey, dark blue, purple, and black.  Malvolio ordered the removal of the plants at the end of our prologue, and trying to bring or restore color to the world became a minor throughline in the production, with Malvolio thwarting people’s attempts to lighten the world at every possible turn.

But within the story are two immense life forces/bringers-of-light: Viola-Cesario and Sir Toby Belch, and it was great fun to pit their indominatable energies against the darker instincts and impulses of Malvolio.  

Although I think the play ends with a spirit of celebration and merriment, there are at least three stories that do not end happily or with a real sense of completion: Malvolio’s, Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s, and Antonio’s.  Finding a way to get to that sense of irresolution in a play determined to tie itself up in a neat Shakespearean everyone-gets-married happy ending, was also challenging.  I borrowed heavily from Tim Bond’s production of the play at OSF as we worked to fulfill the last part and final moments of the story.

Other influences: any number of productions of the play, including Alec Wild’s joyful version at GRSF in our third season, and Carol Mayo Jenkins' recollections of Bill Ball's stunning production at A.C.T. in which Carol played Olivia to Michael Learned's Viola.  But in addition to the various productions I had seen (and from which I got to borrow), Bill Alexander’s book chronicling the round table discussions he had with directors of four different British productions of the play, and the incredibly enlightening The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare’s Audience by John W. Draper probably provided the most helpful mass of insight into the play I came across during my extended preparation period.

Having a light directing schedule in the spring preceding our arrival in Winona for the tenth anniversary season helped enormously.  It gave me the kind of prep time I like and need if I’m working on one of Shakespeare’s scripts for the first time.  I think I entered the rehearsal hall with clear and specific ideas that provided a good framework within which the actors could work and play.  But more than that, having an accomplished company of smart and talented actors, so many of whom have been working together at Great River for multiple seasons – and enough time to adequately rehearse the play (and thanks, Leslie Brott, for the splendid text coaching support), made all the difference in the world.   Plus, I’ve now worked with Jack Forbes Wilson, who composed and arranged music for the production, enough times that we have developed wonderful trust and shorthand, much as have the actors at Great River – with Jack, with me, and among themselves.  The winds of success were favorable, indeed.

Although nothing is ever really perfect, conditions for this first excursion with Twelfth Night were certainly as close to perfect as it gets.  I look forward to directing the play again some time, but it will be hard to do so without this particular cast and the production team that led the work.