Play Review: Twelfth Night, An Exquisite Production With an Identity Crisis

Part of the cast of University Players' production of 'Twelfth Night' perform a dance interlude at the Hatch Studio Theatre Mar.6 [Photo by // David Court - Special to The Lance]

by Hani Yassine
The Lance – Arts Editor

Twelfth Night’ is a play, which truly needs no introduction. The Shakespearean comedy about fun, love and mistaken identity has been adapted and retuned time and time again over the course of centuries. Yet in the midst of the numerous retellings, University Players managed to make their adaptation stand out from the pack by setting it in prohibition-era Detroit.

Illyria is a speakeasy as opposed to a land, and instead of a shipwreck it’s an ice skating incident, which separates twins Viola and Sebastian.

It’s a nice idea, a fantastical one even. Upon seeing the set and costumes, it’s certainly one handled with care. A lot of what comes of the university’s production comes together nicely. It makes it all the more painful to say the implementation of the roaring era largely feels unnecessary despite the work put into it.

The issue essentially lies in the written word. It’s not to say the play doesn’t do a respectful job adhering to the source material, because it does. But perhaps it’s where the issue lies. As the story progresses and scenes move from one to the next, there’s the obligation to pinch yourself, to serve as a reminder that yes, this play technically takes place in the 1920s. It takes place in Detroit despite no real allusions to it. References to rumrunners and the temperance movement are in the air, but do nothing to provide the play additional texture. It’s especially difficult to believe it’s the roaring 20s when lines containing “good madam” and “noble lord” are scattered throughout, serving as immersion breakers.

In spite of all of this, to say this wasn’t an enjoyable production would be a lie. There’s an undeniable charm and heightened sense of professionalism from the performers. Everyone puts forth the great effort to make this the light-hearted and playful comedy it’s known for. The story moves at a fine pace despite alternating between very few locations. Everything aesthetically from the costume and set design to the lighting is nothing short of exceptional.

When looking at the big picture, the rendition hits more than it misses. But upon intensely fusing the material with a unique setting, a double-edged sword is created. The material is conveyed skillfully at the cost of the backdrop serving little to no purpose of its own.

Perhaps saying all this is a bit too harsh. After all, there have been numerous Shakespeare adaptations placed in a backdrop more modernized than the initial counterpart. A lot of these adaptations wear the material on the sleeve. But when there’s great effort in capturing a certain era and style, you expect something beyond mere face value. You’d like to feel people are actually living in the world being established.

Actor Joseph Zita, who plays the character Malvolio, finds himself in the front and centre of a scene in the University Players' adaptation of 'Twelfth Night' at the Hatch Studio Theatre Mar. 6 (Photo by // David Court)

Actor Joseph Zita, who plays the character Malvolio, finds himself in the front and centre of a scene in the University Players’ adaptation of ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Hatch Studio Theatre Mar. 6
(Photo by // David Court)

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