Review: Bard's Classic Comedy Comes to Quincy

Straightforward take on ‘Twelfth Night’ delights with love triangles, mistaken identities

Twelfth Night

Quincy House Dining Hall, April 10-12

Quincy House Theatre experienced a renaissance this weekend with the opening of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies of hidden identity, love and the hijinks of a few fun-loving knights.

Director Brett Gamboa made a wise choice in playing Shakespeare straight. The barebones set and simple costumes did not ask the audience to imagine Shakespearean language in the Old West or on modern-day Verona Beach. Instead, Gamboa and his talented cast remind us what it’s easy to forget after years of high school English classes—and Literature and Arts cores—that Shakespeare and his audiences just wanted to have a little fun.

Shaving the performance to just under two hours and clearly emphasizing the comedic scenes involving Sir Toby Belch (Steve Sweeney), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jeremy L. England ’03) and Maria (Shannon R. Oatey) and their plots against Malvolio—played to just the right pitch of annoying by Tom Giordano ’96—Gamboa puts together a highly entertaining production that resists the urge to take the story too seriously.

It’s a good thing too, since the story tells the highly improbable tale of twins Viola and Sebastian who both survive a shipwreck that lands them in mythical Illyria. Both assume, on the accounts of their rescuers, that the other has perished in the accident. Viola is introduced to the audience first and inexplicably decides to dress as a man and become the Duke’s employee.

Viola’s main task is to help the Duke woo the widow Olivia—which wouldn’t be a problem except that Viola falls in love the Duke and Olivia falls in love with Viola in her male garb. Things get all the more confusing when Sebastian, who looks just like the disguised Viola arrives on the scene.

The comic subtext revolves around the servants in Olivia’s household. The lanky England plays Aguecheek, a bumbling knight who hopes to marry Olivia, with the perfect amount of goofiness and obliviousness. He’s complimented well by Sweeney as the libidinous Sir Toby who is constantly in trouble—yet always lovable—for his drunken ways.

But Shannon Oatey, who plays Olivia’s handmaiden Maria, steals the comic scenes from both of them with her commanding portrayal of the wench Maria. Oatey’s Maria is playful and clever, sassy and smart and always commands the stage even when she’s just in the background reacting with bemused facial expressions. The actress does double duty, as she also plays Sebastian.

While there’s not much to do with the character, Oatey does an excellent job stepping in and out of her dual roles. Gamboa’s choice of casting a woman in the role of Sebastian is an interesting one and only one of the few places the production actually emphasizes the subtexts of cross-dressing and homoeroticism.

The other performances were also strong, with Emily van Waning Galvin ’04 as Viola and Caroline T. Koo ’04 as Olivia being particularly notable. Gavin plays Viola as a young boy with a touching weepy eyed presence and Koo handles the dramatic changes in her characters disposition with great comedic flair.

Samantha E. Franklin ’05, as the fool, was also a pleasure to watch—especially when singing Renaissance songs for the audience.

Despite a few shaky moments of garbled and forgotten lines, this production of Twelfth Night was both solid and enjoyable.  The success of the production bodes well for Quincy House Theater, which will hopefully find the resources to turn this caliber of performance into a tradition in the House.

—Crimson Arts theater critic Stephanie E. Butler can be reached at sbutler@fas.harvard.edu.