He’s in love with her and he’s in love with her and she’s in love with him but him is a her pretending to be a him for he who is in love with her.
This is the easiest way to describe the plot of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a comedy of romantic errors set on an island in the Mediterranean. The show, which premiered four hundred and twenty one years and fourteen days prior to this review being written has been performed hundreds if not thousands of times over. Northern Kentucky University’s production has all of the humor and sharp wit that Shakespeare is known for (he’s also known for ripping your heart out, but that’s not one of those shows.). The show, directed by Mike King, who is retiring and was honored at the end of tonight’s performance by a fellow faculty member, paints a vision of 1950’s Greece.
The show centers around several love stories, or rather, attempted love stories. Our main character, Viola, played by the amazingly talented Ella Prather is shipwrecked upon a mysterious island, ruled by the Duke Orsino, played by the eloquent Austin Michael Fidler and inhabited with some colorful and larger than life characters. To try and gain favor with the Duke, Viola dons a disguise and becomes Cesario, A young boy for hire. The Duke, wanting to court the favor of the Lady Olivia, played by the charming Ellie O’Hara, sends Cesario (Viola) to go and make his love for her known, despite the fact that she is mourning the loss of her late brother. However, during this errand, Olivia falls madly in love with Cesario.
From there the show spirals into love triangles between lords and maids and butlers and ladies. I feel it a bit redundant to recount the whole story as the seasoned Shakespearean fans will know this story well (She’s the Man, the mid-2000’s film follows a similar plot, but adding soccer to the mix), and for those unfamiliar with the play, I don’t want to spoil several fun plot twists.
The cast of students masterfully performs Billy Shakes’ iambic pentameter with such ease, you would think that these 18-20-somethings spoke this way naturally. Shakespeare can be difficult to read, but I have always found that when performed well, no matter how many “prithee” or “thou shalt” and “upon thy bosom I rest thy soul”, his work is as relevant and clear as if it was written this year. These students truly set the stage alight with their use of the space, using the theatre in the round format to its fullest. There’s never a dull moment during the show.
The stand out performances are the love-stricken and “abused” Malvolio, played by the hilarious Jordan Whittaker. His over the top performance never feels out of place, but rather displays a good level of restraint, fitting for his butler turned tricked suitor character. Every time he is on stage he absolutely steals the scene and commands the audience’s attention.
The other standout role is without a doubt the fool, Feste, played by the Dick Van Dyke-esque Hannah Beaven. I use that analogy as not only does Hannah have excellent comedic timing, but in this performance she also sings several times! Part court jester, part trickster accomplice, and part cabaret singer, similar to Jordan, her presence is larger than life, but never out of the place. For me the true highlight of the show is a scene near the beginning of the second act where Malvolio and Feste have a hilarious back and forth.
To surround these amazing performances and comedic love story is the amazing costume design by Ronnie Chamberlain and tasteful scenic design by Tao Wang and Ron Shaw. The costumes and set evoke 1950’s Greece, with references to the Mediterranean royalty of the time who often made headlines for their flings with American Hollywood stars and starlets. There is even a small reference to James Dean in the character design of Fabian, played by James Pinkley. From the bright but regal purple suit of the Duke Orsino to the floral wedding dress of Olivia the costumes compliment the script as much as the actors.
The set, simple in nature evokes elegance and a laid back way of life. Potted flowers and plants adorn the steps of the set, with minimalism being at the forefront of the design, in many ways highlighting the actors masterfully. To cover both the sets and the costumes, the lighting design by Luke Eisner flows seamlessly between scene changes and transitions. The lights subtly dim during a soliloquy or brighten to evoke happiness or excitement. The nighttime scenes, never too dimly lit to not be scene, but not so bright as to confuse the setting added a nice layer of depth to the performance.
In conclusion, NKU’s production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is a joy to behold. I laughed out loud several times and often lost myself with the performances to even take notes. As I left the theatre, walking past a reception for the retiring Mike King, I thought to myself, “Wow. Those actors are students. BFA students who have a bright, bright future ahead of them.”
Tickets for “Twelfth Night”
“Twelfth Night” is currently running at the Stauss Theatre in NKU’s Fine Arts Building from February 16th to the 23rd. If you have never seen a Shakespeare play before, this is the one to see. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Contact the NKU Box Office for tickets.
Adam Schwartz is a longtime lover of theatre and music and any performing arts. Currently working at the University of Dayton, his passions for musicals led him during the pandemic to create ‘StageRant‘ a movie musical review podcast with his friend Joe. He is super excited to join LCT as a new reviewer!