Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Otterbein College, Westerville, OH 2000

The particular challenge

I worked to tell the stories of the play as truthfully and as clearly as we can, but I also wanted to celebrate the innate theatricality of the play. We examined every irregularity in the scansion, every short verse line, every shared verse line, every transition from verse to prose: what is Shakespeare telling us about the emotional state of each character? We laid the psychological groundwork for each character. I pushed these student actors both to raise the stakes high and to make big choices; Illyria is a magical place and the emotions need to be as heightened as the language.

My program notes

Twelfth Night is excess. Is gluttony. Is indulgence. Of every appetite. Of every desire. It is no accident that the play begins with Orsino’s “give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” Twelfth Night is terribly sexy, raucously funny and potentially deeply disturbing. Twelfth Night shines both the playful, magical light of the moon and the cool, harsh sunlight of the ‘morning-after’ on our longings. Twelfth Night feasts us on longing, on love and foolishness, on revelry. It mocks self-righteousness and all those who take themselves too seriously. In the world of the play, perhaps only Feste is safe from this mockery, because he sees himself as well as those around him with a brilliant, moonlit clarity. Twelfth Night also reprimands those who do not know when the party is over, when the joke has gone too far, when enough is enough.

Our Illyria is its own universe, its own time, filled with mischief, raging hormones, swirling movement and play. It is humid and sexy in Illyria; it is a bit too much. We understand from the design as well as from the action that something is a bit off, a bit over the top in Illyria. It is lush like the Mediterranean coast, but the foliage is an unexpected color, purple and royal blue. We play on a wide proscenium and, as things get out of hand, the action spills out of the arch, onto the apron and into the house. The costumes come from the crossroads of the fairy tale, the medieval and Moroccan. The fabrics and the colors define Illyria: sheer, wispy, sometimes iridescent fabrics that swirl when one spins and cling to the body in midnight and lagoon blues, lavenders, magentas, orchids and plums underscore the passion, the abandon, the recognition and, of course, the excesses of Twelfth Night.

At the beginning of the play, Orsino is ‘in love’ with Olivia. Yet he never goes to see her. Like an adolescent alone in his room with Nirvana on the stereo, Orsino is in love with the grief of being in love. Olivia, for her part, has made a lifestyle choice out of mourning her brother’s death. She plans to spend seven years cloistered within her own estate, making a great demonstration of her love for her brother through her grief. Yet after her first conversation with Feste in I,v, she does not speak of her dead brother again. Mourning is certainly ended by the time Viola/Cesario finishes the ‘willow cabin’ speech. Viola takes both Orsino and Olivia on a journey from imagined and self-centered feelings to love turned outward and shared with another.

The dark house

The gulling of Malvolio comprises some of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare: we all get a good laugh when the uptight steward gets his comeuppance, but the ‘dark house’ scene (IV,ii) leads us to a dark corner of human nature. The joke turns to cruelty. Excess comes back with a vengeance: too much revelry and too much drinking on the part of the ‘lighter people’ is coupled with too much arrogance and too little self-awareness on Malvolio’s part. The Elizabethans took great delight in bearbaiting, cock fighting and other recreations that depended upon the merciless taunting and destruction of innocent creatures. We like to think that, as a culture, we have ‘evolved.’ One of the great challenges in working on Twelfth Night is deciding what story to tell here: do we tell the story of a man who has been somewhat ill–used but who is mostly unable to take a joke or do we tell the story of a good joke transformed to vicious cruelty?


Columbus Alive
Twelfth Night at Otterbein College is worth 11 anyplace else. Under the direction of Kathleen Powers, this mirthful romp becomes a rousing combination of over-the-top humor and steamy sexuality… the Powers’ approach succeeds beautifully. The comic acting outdoes itself scene by scene like a fireworks display.”

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
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--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i