Duke Orsino, the incurable romantic that he is, gets the first lines in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” – “If music be the food of love, play on … Give me excess of it.”
They are suitable words to begin one of the Bard’s most beloved romantic comedies – and they launch the 2022 edition of Bard in the Quad at Oregon State University, which begins Thursday evening in OSU’s Memorial Union Quad for a two-weekend run. (See the “If You Go” box for more details.)
Elizabeth Helman, the program director for OSU’s Theatre Department, is directing “Twelfth Night” for the second time – the first production, in 2009, marked her first directorial effort for Bard in the Quad. She said it’s a play of “massive excess,” with characters feeling big emotions, and indulging in them, whether it’s seven years of grieving, love at first sight (again and again) or the partying antics of Sir Toby Belch (Steven Evans-Renteria) and his gang of scoundrels. And, Helman noted, the character who begins to set this world aright – the shipwrecked Viola (Abrianna Aydee), who (of course) disguises herself as a man and joins Orsino’s court, “is lying to everybody throughout the play.” In Viola’s defense, Helman said, “she’s doing it to protect herself. And she’s doing it for her own reasons,” primarily that she’s fallen in love with Orsino (Quentin Kirk).
Did we mention that Viola has a twin brother, Sebastian (AJ Glessner), who she believes perished at sea? Would it surprise you to learn that he did not? No?
It all works out in the end. Unless you’re Malvolio (Matt Holland), the prideful and peevish steward. We’ll get back to him.
The first time Helman staged “Twelfth Night” for Bard in the Quad, she gave it a commedia del’arte setting, appropriate for the play’s outsized emotions and physical slapstick humor.
But that was before Bard in the Quad acquired a better sound system and improved lighting, which gives her some additional tools to play with for this year’s production.
Not that she entirely dispenses with the physical humor.
She said a Bard in the Quad production, set against the backdrop of OSU’s Memorial Union, “always is a little broad and physical – it should be, because the spaces are physically huge. But this production is a little more grounded. … It’s definitely softer, a little more romantic and sensitive. All the characters seem much more in tune with real human emotions, to some degree.”
Visually, Helman drew inspiration from a surprising source: the animated Disney hit “The Little Mermaid.”
Disney animators, Helman said, were fond of placing their fairy-tale films in a vaguely defined Victorian era. “It’s a very loosely interpreted late 19th-century period that has this era of magic and elegance to it. … But there’s something about that aesthetic of Disney animated fairy tales that was just striking me as right for this story right now. … It’s a fun space to play in.”
Costume designer DeMara Cabrera, a veteran of Bard in the Quad shows, notes that the setting of the productions against the Memorial Union requires that “every design has to be bigger.” (And footwear often takes a pounding as the actors roam up and down the steps and along the sidewalks outside the building.) For “Twelfth Night,” Cabrera has crafted outrageously colorful outfits for characters such as Feste, the clown (Dmitri Rose), and elegant costumes for characters like Duke Orsino and Malvolio – well, elegant for Malvolio until he falls prey to a cruel prank, convinces himself that his mistress, Olivia (Madeline Braun), is in love with him, and follows instructions in a forged letter to don cross-gartered yellow stockings as a sign of his love.
It’s behavior that makes Malvolio seem insane, and he spends much of the second half of the play bound and confined to a dark room. When he finally is freed near the end, he famously vows to be “revenged on the whole lot of you.” The subplot casts a shadow over the generally sunny proceedings.
For Malvolio, Helman has cast her husband, Holland, a frequent cast member in her productions. It’s particularly interesting casting in that Holland played Feste, the clown, in Helman’s 2009 production – and the two characters share a vital scene. Helman said the role switch gives Holland a chance to see “the other side of the story.” Without Malvolio’s voice, she noted, “it’d be a very different play.”
With the exception of Malvolio’s sad (and unresolved) fate, “Twelfth Night” ends with a sense that, despite the chaos that has gone before, the world has reverted to a semblance of normalcy. Helman thinks that had to be reassuring to audiences in Shakespeare’s day – and today as well.
In his comedies, she said, “for all of Shakespeare’s exploration of inverting hierarchy and having people do ridiculous things when they’re falling in love, and servants outwitting their masters, and clever clowns and wise fools, he loves to show the chaos. And he makes space for discoveries that we can make about ourselves when we allow things to get a little bit messy and chaotic. But in the end, we’re always going to go back to some sort of status quo so that society doesn’t completely fall apart.”
If You Go
WHAT: “Twelfth Night,” the 2022 production of Bard in the Quad, a production of OSU Theatre.
WHEN: The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11, 12, 13 and 14.
WHERE: Memorial Union Quad, on the north side of the Memorial Union, 2501 SW Jefferson Way on the OSU campus in Corvallis.
HOW MUCH: An “Early-Bard” deal has been extended, with tickets selling for $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and children and $5 for students. Click here for ticket information.
THE CAST: Quentin Kirk, Matt Holland, Mei Meng, Suzanne Schuyler, Dmitri Rose, Abrianna Aydee, Madeline Braun, Samantha Johnson, Sophie Brown, AJ Glessner, Dylan Danielson, Noah Fox, Steven Evans-Renteria
WORDS TO THE WISE: Even on the hottest days, the Quad can be chilly after sundown, so bring layers or a blanket. Patrons can also bring a picnic dinner and low-backed chairs. Cookies, coffee and cocoa will be available with a $1 suggested donation at the box office tent. Parking is free on campus after 5 p.m. Seating in the Quad begins at 6:30 p.m. There will be no late seating or admission. For questions, call the University Theatre box office manager at 541-737-2853.