The UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre just opened an intriguing production of Twelfth Night that mashes up class, race and gender in surprising ways by setting the classic Shakespearean comedy in 19th-century Hawaii. Directed by theater professor David Furumoto, it is intended to be a love letter to his childhood home and a history lesson for audiences about our 50th state.
Twelfth Night, which runs at the Gilbert V. Hemsley Theatre through March 12, opens with a shipwreck, separating the siblings Viola and Sebastian, who each assume the other has drowned. Presuming they are alone on the foreign island of Illyria, they each make their way with the help of strangers. Sebastian allies himself with Antonio, a loyal friend with a checkered past. Viola trades in her dress for the trousers, boots, hat and bandana of a young man (actually a eunuch), and offers her service to the court of Duke Orsino. But Orsino is sick with love for the Countess Olivia, who spurns all his advances. And so begins the gender-switching comedy — the young woman in boy’s clothing who falls in love with a man, who sends her to woo a woman, who falls in love with the girl in disguise. Olivia’s drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch amuses himself by orchestrating tricks on others with her gentlewoman Maria — namely the dour puritan Malvolio and the silly but wealthy fop Andrew Aguecheek. They are assisted by Feste, a wandering jester.
In this production the island containing all these mistaken identities is Oahu, and the cast of characters is drawn from native Hawaiians, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, American missionaries and the English owners of sugar plantations. The play is filled with traditional Hawaiian music and dancing, complete with a fool who looks a great deal like the Disney hero Maui and some impressive costuming (Brittany Graham, designer).
Unfortunately, the unusual setting never really works as a framing device for the play itself. It’s interesting to see the painted drops morph from an idyllic empty beach to a grass hut, to an imperial estate, to modern condos and an area so overdeveloped and filled with cars that they obscure the view of the water. (Scenic design is by Rob Wagner.) It’s also interesting to read dramaturg Ashley Bellet’s program notes about the last queen of Hawaii struggling to preserve her culture in the 1890s. But these elements fail to elevate, illuminate or even interact with Shakespeare’s text. And overall, the actors in the play have a difficult time finding the meaning behind the Bard’s lines as written, let alone layering the complexity and nuance of another political story on top of the busy comedy.
As Viola, Anna Mei Baker does an admirable job of fending off the advances of Olivia, played with spunk and passion by Kailea Saplan. And as Malvolio, the stern servant with aspirations of love for his mistress, Peter Magnus Curry shows delightful range: He rails at Sir Toby’s drunken band in one scene, then he becomes giddy with the possibility of romance. He is thoroughly frightened and abused by Feste, and finally determined to have his revenge on all who humiliated him. His is the most clear and compelling character arc in the production.
Finally, in an age of colorblind and gender-neutral casting, it’s not unusual to see roles that were formerly played by white men taken on by women and people of color. And that is the case here; many men’s parts are played by women, and ethnicity was not a factor in assigning characters. But this becomes problematic when the main plot device in the play is a woman pretending to be a man and the chosen setting has racial overtones pertaining to class.
As the program notes suggest, in the world of Twelfth Night “anything is possible,” but perhaps this production is trying to accomplish too much.