Directed by Professor Gary Gisselman, artist in residence and veteran director of plays including "The Persians" and "Arcadia," the performance moved from stylized, ritualistic grandeur to raucous laughter at the drop of a hat (or a rapier, as the case may be). Sometimes it managed both at the same time.
St. Olaf's Haugen theatre is in a constant state of flux, chairs moving in and out, newly painted floors going down and coming up with each season. For "Twelfth Night," Gisselman chose a rather unusual configuration, placing the audience on either side of the stage, able to see right across to their fellow theatre-goers.
This configuration lent itself well to the measured, almost religious opening, which paired Orsino (Rob Riddle '08) against his unrequited love Olivia, (Hannah Sorenson '10) in mourning for her dead brother, veiled in black, carrying a lantern. This mystic frame provided an excellent ground for an otherwise light and wandering fable.
The plot is the usual fluff of Shakespeare's comedies, well earning Fabian's (Derek Benson '08) wry commentary, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
Fraternal twins are separated at birth. The sister Viola (Angela Gulner '09) goes masquerading as a man so that she may get close to a Duke Orsino, whom she wants to marry. In turn, he sends her (thinking her a young page) to woo Olivia, whom he wants to marry.
Naturally, Olivia falls in love with Viola, and doesn't discover her error until after her twin brother Sebastian (Ross Lambrecht '09) (naturally in town) has already agreed to marry her. And none of the gender confusion seems to bother anyone in the least.
The interplay between Gulner's Viola and Sorensen's Olivia left quite an impact. Sorensen's unbridled enthusiasm made Olivia's love for Viola (a hard sell for an audience that knows she's not in fact a man) almost unquestionable. Indeed, she impressed it so thoroughly that even those who didn't know the plot in advance had to groan a bit that it took Viola so long to realize that Olivia's attentions were misdirected.
"Viola was very challenging for me, because she is very 'happened upon,'" Gulner said. "She has to adapt to all these events as they come. There is so much identity confusion, and a real sense of growing up for her throughout the show."
The scenes that focused on the simple ritual of the courtship scenes (skewed though this courtship might be) benefited enormously from the narrow stage. The two-dimensional playing space served well to highlight the path of the lovers' eyes, gazing unflinchingly toward the objects of their affections. This channel's immediacy also heightened the distress of those who found themselves opposite unwanted eyes.
The lighter sections of the play, on the other hand, found themselves somewhat constricted by the stage. Comedy in general craves asymmetry, and the actors in all sections seemed boxed in, never wanting to venture too far from the midpoint between the two audiences. Not to say that they lost a great deal from this constriction. Olivia's household carried on in drunken revelry and had a lot of fun despite this minor trouble, and especially shone when their bawdy comedy ventured closer to the ritualized high farce of the romance.
Anna Dalager '08 and David Manning '09 provided accompaniment for several songs, sung with deft charm by the fool Feste (Maren Searle '08), though various recorded tracks were also played. The presence of live musicians provided an enhanced experience, but a small space like Haugen Theatre seriously constricts the number of musicians, and two and a half hours worth of music (even if only during scene changes) places a substantial burden on two lone artists.
Reflecting on the production, Gulner said, "Putting up the show in such a short amount of time has been a really great and challenging experience for everyone. The fact that 'Twelfth Night' is such an ensemble piece with no real leading characters has also be really great. There is a sense of unity and support. Its been such a blast!"
As a professor, Gisselman often asks his students the motives of a play. For Twelfth Night the answer probably comes out more to something like "just for the sheer fun of it." Though purists may shudder at such a pronouncement, sometimes, that's all you need.