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‘Twelfth Night’: Shakespeare returns to Williams Park

Bill DeYoung



The cast of "Twelfth Night." Photo: GJ Thompson/St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival.

Note: Due to the approach of Hurricane Ian, this weekend’s performances have been canceled. The public is invited to watch dress rehearsal Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Performances will still take place Oct. 7-9.

The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, which isn’t a festival in the usual sense, comes roaring back full of sound and fury this weekend. The organization’s fall production, Twelfth Night, opens Friday in Williams Park, where it will spend two full three-day weekends. Weather permitting, of course.

Admission is free.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (that’s the full title) is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, first performed at the end of the Christmastide season in 1602 (Elizabethan Christmas celebrations lasted twelve days and nights – “ten lords a-leaping,” et cetera – and it made absolute sense to close things out with a riotous laugh-getter).

Much of the text and subtext of Twelfth Night involves gender-switching and role-reversal (even in the Bard’s time, it seems, some liked it hot).

To complete the topsy-turviness of it all, the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival has cast every role in its production with women.

According to director Clareann Despain, using an all-female cast changes the romantic situations and dialogue in Twelfth Night into something else altogether. “We have some really sexist ideas in the mouths of some of these characters,” she points out. “Cesario, who’s essentially Viola in drag, says some things that are really not great. About women. About their constancy, about their value. We hear that from Orsino as well.

“Other characters pick up this conversation, and it’s not terribly flattering. But we’re aware that a woman character, in drag as a man, is saying this.”

So who’s who and what’s what? Shakespeare’s main characters are twins (one male, one female) separated by a disaster at sea. Everyone’s in love with someone, and there’s disorder in every house.

“Of course, in Shakespeare’s time all the performers were men or boys,” Despain says. “So it was always a dude saying it, regardless of the nature of the character. There’s a certain awareness of the gender of the performer, in contrast to the gender of the character.”

Breaking the fourth wall, indulging in physical comedy and throwing gender to the wind make this Twelfth Night – with its era-accurate misogyny intact – something unique.

“We found a way to comment on it, when you have an all-woman cast,” Despain explains. “That in itself is a chance to comment on those ideas. And we’ve pushed that further, in a comedic way. We’ve gone straight for the silly, and for rolling our eyes and groaning when it’s bad. There’s no dick joke left unturned. Jokes about our notion of gender.

“It is a very queer telling. I think if you really dig into the Antonio/Sebastian narrative, the homoeroticism is all over the place. It’s unmissable. So that when Sebastian falls for Olivia, it’s really weird. I’m a little surprised that when I saw the show 20 years ago, that wasn’t there in the performance.

“Leaning into that, as women, has been really fun. Because I think it’s self-aware in a queer way, more than anything. More than having specifically to do with gender, I think it’s more about attraction.”

Despain, a producing director for Tampa’s David A. Straz Center, most recently helmed the Stageworks production of Murder on the Orient Express.

Mouting an ambitious show like Twelfth Night in an outdoor venue, she admits, is something of an uphill climb. Williams Park does not include a fully professional complement of theatrical lightning, and because the company’s emphasis is on the nimble brilliance of Shakespeare’s language, every turn of phrase must be heard, and heard clearly, by the audience (the production’s sound system issues are still being finalized).

Still, Despain declares, the Bard always prevails.

“I’m no purist, but I think the absence of a bunch of technical options isn’t necessarily the challenge we imagine it to be. In part because it allows us to focus on the actors, the language and the performances.”

Performances are Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9, at 7:30 p.m.

St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival website.











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