Gender Bender at Woods Theatre

twelfth-nightThe Lauren K. Woods Theatre is a bit of a wreck right now. Actually, it’s a shipwreck. No, none of the winter storms threw a boat into the theatre. The spring musical, William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or “What You Will,” involves a shipwreck. It also involves mistaken identities, cross-dressing, fight sequences and plenty of comedy.

Forget the dramatic and depressing Shakespeare that was required in high school. Doomed lovers and cursed kings are nowhere to be found in “Twelfth Night.” Instead we have Viola (Alexandra Appolonia), a girl who is shipwrecked and must find work when she washes up on the shores of Illyria, believing her twin brother to be dead.

When it doesn’t seem like she can find work as a woman, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario to work for Duke Orsinio (Henry O. Siebecker). Viola starts to fall in love with Orsinio, but he needs Cesario’s help to court Olivia (Brooke McCarthy). However, Olivia is in love with Cesario who is actually Viola, and that’s just the beginning.

Part of the reason Director Nicole Ricciardi chose “Twelfth Night” was because of the many storylines. “It’s, I would say, the most ensemble of his plays. Meaning there really isn’t a lead character. There are several subplots and everyone has their time (in the spotlight),” Ricciardi said.

The production includes 14 cast members, the majority of whom are female. According to Ricciardi, who said she had always wanted to do a Shakespearean play at the University, the number of female roles also played a role in picking “Twelfth Night.” Ricciardi explained, “We always have a shortage of men, so I couldn’t do Henry V or one of the histories…[Twelfth Night] has a lot of great female parts.”

That isn’t to say that the boys are missing out on the fun. “Twelfth Night” has some fight sequences, which both Brandon Weiner and Nickolas Haberstroh are part of. They fight each other as Sebastian and Sir Andrew. Haberstroh said, “I’m really enjoying the fight scenes. Brandon is a natural with physical humor and great to work with. I’m also glad I get [to kick] his ass.”

Weiner was slightly less enthusiastic about getting beat up. “The fight sequences are a lot of fun but hard to remember, so practicing is important. I just don’t like how I get beat up all the time,” Weiner laughed.

Shakespeare wasn’t something Weiner thought he would love. “I was not a huge fan of Shakespeare before the show,” he said. “However, I had Acting 3 last semester (taught by Ricciardi), which was all Shakespeare which I ended up loving.”

Ricciardi noted that “Twelfth Night” is actually very relatable for students. Thematically, it is really a story about characters growing up and going on a journey of self-discovery. Most of the characters are in their teens or twenties, meaning the actors will not be acting too much younger or older than their actual age.

However, Ricciardi is adding some modern elements to make the play more immediately accessible. Although the set and costumes look to be from the mid-1800s, flashlights, Big Gulps and plenty of other modern day conveniences find their way into the production. “We’re using what you know and enjoy in order to make sure you come on this journey with us,” Ricciardi said.

Some might think younger actors would be less adept with Shakespearean dialogue, but Ricciardi insisted that younger actors are better. “The younger the actors, the better they are at this particular type of text…The actors this was written for could barely read and they couldn’t write and yet they were able to handle it. The meaning of the text comes from the sound of the words. It is very musical in that sense,” she said.

“Twelfth Night” already includes seven or eight songs, however Professor George Wurzbach has added more songs. Ricciardi said, “[Wurzbach] kind of used the original melodies and original lyrics and went off on them. We started with what we had and we sort of gave him the freedom to go in whatever direction he wanted to. Also stylistically, the songs are all over the place…so that each character really has his or her sort of outlet in a particular style.”

Wurzbach will have a student band playing during the show.

“It’s very much a play,” Ricciardi said. “There is no suspension of disbelief. The audience isn’t supposed to forget they’re at a play. The Woods Theatre is the ideal space for shake. The audience is so close and the rake is so deep that when you’re looking out you really are just playing to a sea of faces… There will be no sitting in the dark and shutting off. The actors will be speaking directly to you.”

“Twelfth Night” will be at Woods Theatre on March 6-9 and 12-14 at 8:00 pm and March 10 at 3:00 pm. For tickets, visit www.monmouth.edu/arts or call the box office at 732-263-6889.