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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Tufts theatre puts a joyful spin on ‘Twelfth Night’

The musical version of the classic Shakespeare comedy tackles gender expression and love.

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The cast of “Twelfth Night” is pictured.

This weekend, Tufts’ Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies opened their spring production of “Twelfth Night.” The 2018 musical adaptation of the Shakespearean classic, with music by Shaina Taub, is a tale of love, mistaken identity and grief. The musical’s plot follows that of the original play: After young Viola (Bella Juhaeri) washes up on the shore of Illyria, grieving the loss of her brother, Sebastian (Ledao Gavaldà), she resolves to dress up as a man named Cesario to gain employment and survive in a new, mysterious world. Now as Cesario, Viola finds herself in a love triangle between the grieving countess Olivia (Leah Cohen) and Duke Orsino (J. Beiser).

Viola’s arrival in Illyria sets off a complex chain of events, as Olivia quickly falls for the disguised Viola, while both the Duke and the power-hungry Malvolio (Ken Crossman) fall in love with Olivia. All the while, Maria (Audrey Sacks), Sir Toby Belch (Wylie Doak) and their friends Andrew (Thomas Grant) and Fabian (August Kittleson) continuously attempt to mess with Malvolio. Sebastian and Antonio’s (Nathan Elmer) eventual arrival in Illyria causes even more commotion between the unrequited lovers. Throughout the show, Olivia’s court jester, Feste (June Sarkis), remains on stage as the show’s narrator.

The directing and choreography duo, Amelia Rose Estrada and Holly Bourdon, do a fantastic job of blending the different elements of the text, music and production to create a unique and exciting performance. Estrada and Bourdon’s eye for choreography is apparent, as the actors move from contemporary to jazzy dance numbers with somersaults and lifts throughout. The choreography is a unique expression of the human body and its role in the world — in the show’s opening scene, actors move as a boat caught in a violent storm, rocking back and forth across the stage until they finally break apart, shipwrecked.

The fluidity of gender expression is another important theme in this production, with the show’s modern twists translating its original message brilliantly. Estrada and Bourdon’s choreography is not limited to strict gender roles, as actors of every gender dance together in moments of tenderness and joy. 

The set, designed by Ted Simpson, is a beautiful mix of blues, purples and greens, establishing a world fairly similar to ours, yet distinctly foreign in many ways. Complete with draping tapestries, a two-story gazebo and a rotating staircase, the set helps audiences enter the world of “Twelfth Night.” The set also helps to unite other elements of the production, fully incorporating the pit orchestra into the show and allowing the costumes to blend in with the unique setting of Illyria.

Every member of the cast has several costumes, each well-crafted masterpieces thanks to costume designer Chelsea Kerl. Olivia, in particular, moves through the show first in an intricate black dress with a large veil, and then in lighter and freer clothing pieces before ending the show in a stunning gold gown. Viola and Orsino also wear outfits that are beautiful halves of feminine and masculine components. The costumes beautifully enhance the show, down to details of extravagant rings, flowing robes, and bright yellow stockings. Kerl’s costumes are jaw-dropping pieces that become more and more impressive the more you see.

Shaina Taub’s music, strongly influenced by Black American swing and jazz, is a true highlight of the show. One of the most impressive songs is “Count Malvolio,” a high energy, show-stopping number complete with jazzy choreography and an extremely talented ensemble decked out in several purple, sequined blazers. Crossman’s performance as Malvolio is a highlight of the production, as he impeccably captures the count’s confidence and comedic timing through his expressive acting and phenomenal vocals.

“What Kind of Man R U Gonna Be?” is another standout song, setting the stage for a fight between Andrew and Viola, as Sir Toby fans the flames of conflict between the two. Doak here is a standout, an exaggerated force of humor as he pushes the two characters into the brawl. The choreography is intense, with fast footwork, boxing gloves and an impressive leap from a staircase.

“Is This Not Love,” performed by Feste, is a beautifully crafted moment of connection between Viola and the Duke. Sarkis steals the show with this number, their voice a beautiful mix of longing and sadness. Cohen and Juaheri also have standout musical moments in “I Am She” and “If You Were My Beloved.” Cohen’s outstanding stage presence, Juhaeri’s embodiment of Cesario and the pair’s rich harmonies are captivating to witness.

The five-person ensemble breathes life into “Twelfth Night,” from start to finish. The dancers act like hype men of sorts throughout the show, riling up and cheering on their fellow actors and bringing the audience further into the world. Their joy in performing is obvious as they move throughout the stage, riffing with each other to fill in the empty spaces of the show. David Palamar and Maya Puffer lead the ensemble as dance captain and featured dancer, respectively, and the pair’s dance performances are consistently entertaining, graceful and breathtaking all at once. Sammy Walkey, Basil Hand and Eli Morton round out this impressive ensemble, playing along with the rest of the cast and audience.

Themes of grief, love and identity run deep in the classic Shakespeare story, with this production offering an incredible musical score and a modern lens that explores ideas of queerness and gender identity. The cast and crew bring a fresh and heartfelt interpretation to “Twelfth Night,” fully embodying its joy and humor.

“Twelfth Night” is running now through Friday in Balch Arena Theater. Tickets are available online or at the Aidekman Arts Center box office.