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Director's Notes on Twelfth Night

Having just entered my twentieth year as the Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre, it feels apt that I launch into this special anniversary year by directing a production of Twelfth Night.  It was the finale production of my very first season, and it remains, to this day, one of my most memorable experiences and one of which I am still very proud.  So while it feels fitting to engage in the play again after 19 years, I was trepidacious about creating a new vision for Twelfth Night with a whole new group of artists, fearful that I would be irrevocably tied to what I was so pleased with so many years ago.  I have often directed the same play more than once, but this particular piece was so imprinted in my memory that I experienced an unusual hesitation about leaping into it once more, despite the fact that it is my favorite Shakespeare comedy.

Needless to say, I have leapt in and am thrilled.  The landscape we have created for this production is so vastly different than what I created almost two decades ago, that it feels entirely new and fresh for me.  Life experience has opened my eyes to aspects of the piece that I viewed very differently in 1991.  And best of all, while nothing will diminish my love of that first go-round with Twelfth Night, my cast for this production shines as brightly as did the first, and to my great satisfaction, many of them are artists that were first discovered and nurtured over the years here at The Shakespeare Theatre.         

All that being said, the best thing about directing Twelfth Night is Twelfth Night.  It is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s greatest comedic achievement.  The play is almost perfect.  It needs very little cutting, it’s brilliantly structured, filled with highly developed characters, abundant in beautiful poetry and delicious wit, and it is far “weightier” in theme and thought than many of his earlier more two-dimensional comedies.  It is the product of a mature Shakespeare, and one that transitions us to the fully dark comedies and mercurial, symbolic romances of his later years.

I always think of the play as an extraordinary, delectable confection, one covered with an explosion of paper-thin shards of white chocolate or coconut, surrounding layer after layer of surprises — marzipan, sticky caramel, bursts of raspberry cream — and in the center, a small but shocking pool of dark, bittersweet, liquid chocolate.  That’s how the play “tastes” to me, it’s how I envision it physically, for the play overflows with a cornucopia of moods and modes.  It shifts on a dime from romance to tragic despair, to bawdiness, wistful melancholy, cruelty, silly froth, dark cynicism, low farce, high wit, bittersweet emotion, harsh realism, tenderness and celebration.

Ultimately, it is, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, about balance.  We are given a world out of balance and we witness the journey to restore it.  In some of the plays the imbalance is societal or political, in some domestic.  Twelfth Night focuses on the out-of-whack inner core of the individual.  Wrongly aimed obsessions and excesses plague each and every character, and all (with the exception of Feste the Fool who is already painfully aware), experience a set of revelations and the ripping away of emotional blinders that enable them to move forward, with their true psyches restored and their affections more properly placed.  That statement is somewhat general and simplistic, for not all the journeys end in satisfaction, and the restorations are not all happy ones.  It is a far more Chekhovian comedy than it is Aristotelian.  Shakespeare was, after all, one of Chekhov’s most precious muses.  Perhaps it is more apt to say that Twelfth Night is the Shakespeare play that taught Chekhov the most, or the one from which he gleaned his best inspiration.  This is all surmise, of course, but the thought is reinforced each time I encounter the play. 

It is a special treat to be able to produce the play at holiday time, during those weeks of revelry and celebration in which many belief systems engage, and the time that gives the play its primary title of Twelfth NightWhat You Will, its subtitle, is a far more elusive “creature.”  What What You Will specifically refers to is up for grabs, and like much of Shakespeare, seems laden with layers of meaning, both dark and light.

I don’t want to end my brief notes without mentioning two things, one just a fun fact.  There is more prose in Twelfth Night than any other play with the exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor.  61% of the play is prose.  The second item regards the music.  The play features more songs than most, and some of them are silly, some haunting.  I have taken a few small liberties by adding holiday music, both old pieces and new.  It is my hope that in doing so, I have intruded little and simply added more Yuletide “spice.”        

I invite you to just experience Twelfth Night.  Let it grab you (for it will!) and then feel or think what you will, for its messages and delights are different for everyone.  Like a dazzling array of treats in the window of a patisserie, some of you will point to the cakes dripping in dark chocolate, some to the strawberry tarts, and others to the lemon meringue.  In Twelfth Night, there are delights aplenty for all tastes. 

Bonnie J. Monte