“Twelfth Night” Preview: Disguises, Dances and Forged Letters in a 1920s Nightclub

With slow, somber steps, Jack Twomey ’17, Dakoury Godo-Solo ’17 and Erica Nork ’16 entered the stage in Steinbach. The trio tripped over a toy boat, cuing the lights in the theater to suddenly switch to a flashing strobe, while crashes of thunder filled the air. This shipwreck scene began “Twelfth Night.”

Directed by Kevin Heelan, Instructor in Theater, the Theater-920 class’s performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is not set in a traditional Elizabethan era. Rather, Heelan chose to add a new and energetic twist to the comedy by incorporating song and dance and by setting it in an underground club in the 1920s.

“We wanted to combine as much dancing and singing as we could into the Theater-920 show and the play that lends itself beautifully to that is [‘Twelfth Night’]…We also wanted to set it in a place where we could introduce all kind of different acts and it would make some reasonable sense,” said Heelan. “We were interested in the music of the ’30s [and] ’20s. The dances were so wonderful then, so exciting and they require such physicality and that was very seductive… We figured it would be so much fun to have a lot of dance numbers.”

The play focuses on the story of Viola, played by Erica Nork ’16, who is separated from her brother at the beginning of the play. Viola soon becomes entangled in a complex and messy love story when she masquerades as a boy and goes to work for Duke Orsino, played by Elliot Sagay ’15.

Nork said, “Viola’s very daring and I appreciate that a lot. She has a lot of guts to do what she does. She takes her own initiative on things… but she’s also terrified in her situation, but she’s going into it anyways, her commitment to what she’s doing is very admirable.”

At the same time, several other characters engage in a comical subplot that contrasts with Viola’s anguish. They convince a steward, Malvolio, played by Niko Skrivanos ’17, that Olivia, Orsino’s love interest played by Lauren Smith ’15, is actually in love with him. The characters send Malvolio a forged letter in which Olivia supposedly confesses her love for him. Malvolio responds to the letter by performing a short tap number and monologue. In his speech, Malvolio reveals that he believes the letter is truthful.

Janice Cheon ’16, the show’s choreographer, said “[The dance] makes it really obvious that [Malvolio] is very happy. He’s in love. This is the first time he has probably smiled in his life, and then the [dance] that follows, when the [other characters] are kind of mimicking him… reinforces the lines they have before when they taunt him.”

Another of the play’s large group dance routines comes just after the initial shipwreck, creating the play’s setting before detailing Viola’s saga. As the characters enter the stage, a slow piano melody fills the theater. Just as the dancing begins, the music turns into an upbeat, jazz song. The actors move all over the stage in a mix of dance steps and gestures that creates the chaotic atmosphere reminiscent of a ’20s club.

Michaela Barczak ’15, who plays the role of Maria, said, “[The singing and dancing] definitely adds to the showiness and the flashiness of the show, and it definitely helps set it in a period of the 1920s. I think it really helps get us in the setting of the nightclub…[it] also makes the story [easier to follow] in my opinion. I think the audience will be able to see that [the songs are] there for not only the nightclub performances but [also] to follow this very bizarre story.”