Arts theater review

A modern spin on a Shakespearean classic

In ‘Twelfth Night,’ MIT’s Shakespeare Ensemble breathes new life into a centuries-old story

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MIT's Shakespeare Ensemble performs 'Twelfth Night' at Kresge Little Theater.
Courtesy of Natasha Stark

Twelfth Night or What You Will
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Francine Davis
Kresge Little Theater
Nov. 1–2 and 7–9 at 8 p.m., Nov. 3 at 4 p.m.

Unrequited love, amusingly improbable pranks, and alcohol-induced moments of public humiliation — sounds like an ordinary week at the ‘tute, doesn’t it? The Bard himself couldn’t have written a play better fit for the modern MIT audience than Twelfth Night, a heartwarming comedy of errors that the Shakespeare Ensemble has chosen to adapt for its annual fall production this year. If you make your way to one of their shows next weekend, you’re sure to find yourself pleasantly surprised at not only recognizing a familiar face or two on stage, but also discovering the curious way aspects of daily student life seem to be reflected in the play’s intriguing narrative.

One of Shakespeare’s more light-hearted pieces, Twelfth Night is a humorous tale of mistaken identities and tangled romances. Twin siblings Viola (Illani Axelrod-Freed ’23) and Sebastian (PJ Hernandez ’20) are washed ashore in the land of Illyria, each under the impression that their other half perished in the shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino (Nicolas Suter ’23), who is head-over-heels for the beautiful Countess Olivia (Ruth Tweedy ’20). Orsino sends Cesario as his wingman to court Olivia in his stead, and from there, chaos ensues. Between all the comical love triangles, drunken antics, and hilarious one-liners, you’re certain to spend a large portion of the play falling out of your seat in laughter.

Twelfth Night’s cast had excellent chemistry and looked like they were having a lot of fun in their roles, spreading infectious joy to the audience. All members of the cast delivered commendable performances, making each character their own. Of special note were Tweedy as the dazzlingly elegant Olivia and Grace Kuffner ’20 as the sardonic court jester Feste. Whereas Tweedy, with her calm yet graceful delivery and marvelous stage presence, seems effortlessly at ease in her role, Kuffner injected a nice balance of sarcastic wit, scathing humor, and melodic vocals into the production. Kuffner’s kaleidoscopic Hawaiian shirt and cap also provided a nice spot of color on stage for a show whose costume palette is overwhelmingly composed of black, white, and brown tones (with one very notable bright yellow exception).

However, we have to say the dynamic duo of supporting characters Sir Andrew (Mathieu Gomez) and Sir Toby (Joey Noszek ’20) comfortably stole the show. Gomez and Noszek were spectacularly hilarious without overexaggerating the comedy. They elevated Shakespeare’s lewd dialogue into maestro performances with their powerful projection and willingness to surrender their bodies to the stage, more often than not caught in the motion of falling down, tumbling over, or running into each other. Their scenes were so entertaining that we almost wished the crew had opted to take inspiration from a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by centering their production on the supporting stories rather than the main narrative, which felt a tad repetitive and forced by the end.

Although the set design could have benefitted from a professional theater budget (for much of the play, a plastic Christmas tree and a painted backdrop are the only props on stage), the Ensemble does a good job of leveraging the items at its disposal towards maximum comedic effect. From duels featuring metallic whisks, flimsy umbrellas, and rubber chickens to a surprisingly hazardous feather, the show always maintains a perfect balance between staying faithful to the source material and setting a tone of humorous absurdity. In perhaps our favorite scene, a group of well-intentioned pranksters hide in plain sight, pathetically covering their bodies with miniscule plastic leaves as they attempt to eavesdrop on the obliviously preoccupied Malvolio (Rishabh Chandra ’20). By toeing the line between believability and exaggerated slapstick, the Shakespeare Ensemble breathes new life into a centuries-old story.