William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which premiered in 1602, is one of the Bard's most acclaimed comedies. A fast-moving plot that centers around shipwrecked-and-separated identical twins Sebastian and Viola keeps the misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and witty dialogue coming fast and furious — and the play is also one of the great gender-switching comedies. Viola spends much of the play disguised as Cesario, who works in the service of Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia and sends "Cesario" to convey romantic messages. But Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who's actually in love with Orsino, and the misdirection and hijinks ramp up considerably even before identical twin Sebastian shows up to throw things into further disarray.
So there's a lot going on, and a lot of characters to juggle but this light-footed play (originally written for the Christmas season) does it all with aplomb. And yet, in a world full of constant performances of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Othello, it doesn't seem like Twelfth Night is revived all that often.
And that it hasn't been revived that much is confusing to Allison Brower, who's directing a new production of Twelfth Night for the Flowertown Underground theater company.
"People study Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in school, so they always tend to know the tragedies," she says. "But other than A Midsummer Night's Dream, the comedies don't seem to get enough love. I don't think anyone's going to walk away from it offended, but it was so different for its time, maybe it was easier to fall in love with something like Midsummer."
"Different" in this case refers to the reversal of gender roles in the play, not just in the literal sense as when Viola becomes Cesario, but in more metaphorical terms, as well, which is something that drew Brower to putting Twelfth Night on this year's schedule.
"Whenever I pick a play I try to relate it to what's going on now, and it seemed to be a good fit for the world right now," she says. "Whether we thought it was something Shakespeare was trying to comment on at the time or not, a lot of the women in the play do a lot of the stereotypical 'men' jobs, and vice versa. It was ahead of its time, dealing with gender issues, which I thought was a relevant topic to 2018."
Brower just got her masters degree in theatrical directing from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and she spent a lot of time studying Shakespeare in general — and Twelfth Night specifically. So, when Flowertown Underground (Brower both acts and directs for the troupe) was looking to perform a Shakespeare play, she was excited about the opportunity.
"I felt like I had a good understanding of it," she says. "It was fun for me as a performer and director."
One of the best things about modern stagings of Shakespeare's work is that they can still be delivered in just about any setting, whether it's a post-apocalyptic futurescape or a cutthroat corporate boardroom. In this case, since Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck on a mysterious island, Brower figured that pirates and British-style naval officers were in order.
"When I was growing up one of my favorite movies was Pirates Of The Caribbean," she says, "so we're actually playing around with some characters being pirates, while Orsino is more like Commodore Orrington. It's set somewhere around 1720-50."
There's plenty of chaos surrounding the Viola/Cesario character, so Brower knew she needed a strong actress to play not just a dual role, but the central figure in the play. Dorothy Smith (who also appeared in Underground's production of Midsummer) fit the bill perfectly.
"When I was auditioning, I asked that the actors prepare a comedic Shakespeare monologue," Brower says, "because I was looking for someone who understood the language and was willing to have fun with it and play around with whatever piece they were performing. Then I might give them little bits of direction with scenes from Twelfth Night and tell them to play with this idea or this feeling. I was really looking for someone who could have fun with it, and Dorothy was absolutely brilliant and hilarious, with a clear understanding of how she wanted Viola to come across, from the audition onward. It's a heavy load to carry, but she's doing a fabulous job."
After casting Smith, Brower had other hurdles to clear: This will be her first-ever directing stint, at least with grownups.
"I teach theater at a high school, so I direct at least two or three shows every year, but this is actually the first time I've gotten to direct adults," she says with a laugh. "It's been a learning experience for me. But there's a saying that 70 percent of a director's work is casting the show, and if a director does that right, their work is done. I definitely found that to be true."
The main goal once Brower had the cast (which also includes Underground veterans Alan Garner, Daniel Rich, and Charissa Ward) set was to work on the language of the Bard, which has rhythms all its own.
"We had people coming from different backgrounds in terms of Shakespeare," she says. "Some of them were very experienced, and some of them had never auditioned for a Shakespeare play before. So, I think that the biggest challenge was getting them on the same page, so we could move forward with the blocking and the rehearsal and the memorizing. We had a lot of discussion at those first couple of rehearsals and broke it down the simplest way, so we could all carry each other forward. It's been a true community theater performance in that everyone's working together."