November 9, 2022

“Twelfth Night” Depicts Secret Identities, Unrequited Love, and a Cruel Joke; Theatre Intime’s Production Probes Grim Mood of Shakespeare’s Comedy

“TWELFTH NIGHT”: Performances are underway for “Twelfth Night.” Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the play runs through November 13 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, are Maria (Alex Gjaja), Feste (Ava Kronman), Olivia (Alexis Maze), and Viola, disguised as “Cesario” (Rilla McKeegan). (Photo by Kate Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Twelfth Night reflects the “end of the Christmas season and was a time of revelry, in which the norms of society were inverted,” observes the play’s page on the Royal Shakespeare Company website. The work’s first noted performance took place in February 1602, on the feast of Candlemas.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime is currently presenting Shakespeare’s comedy. The production’s first weekend coincided with another celebration, albeit a secular one. An alumni reunion (belatedly) celebrated the centennial of Theatre Intime (and the 50th anniversary of Princeton Summer Theater).

However, the script itself rarely feels festive; one could say that revelry is inverted. Countess Olivia, who mourns her brother, is determined not to consider suitors until seven years have passed. Meanwhile, her steward Malvolio is the victim of a cruel prank. By way of acknowledging the play’s gloomy undercurrent, Feste the Fool ends it by singing a song that reminds us that “the rain it raineth every day.”

Indeed, Malvolio says, “This house is as dark as ignorance.” Thoughtfully directed by Solomon Bergquist, Theatre Intime’s production chooses to take this literally, underlining the play’s grim mood.

Set/Props Designer Alex Conboy has not furnished elaborate scenery, opting for a more abstract style that accentuates the concept of improvised pretense. At key moments the stage is decorated with varied pieces of furniture or other objects. As Bergquist explains in a program note, the aesthetic suggests an “18th century style.”

Like the walls surrounding the stage, many of Lily Turri’s costumes are black. This reflects the plot point of Olivia’s mourning, as well as the general sense of melancholy that pervades the play. In keeping with the theme of assuming different identities, layers are added to characters’ costumes in full view of the audience.

Gradually, other colors — especially white — are added to both the costumes and the stage. The sight of a white sheet hanging from a clothesline on a predominantly black set, flanking characters wearing black and white, is an effective stage picture. To match the roses that eventually are brought on stage, Olivia changes clothes — from an all-black outfit, to a dress that is mostly black but has a red floral pattern that adds splashes of color.

More than once, a character is revealed to have been hiding in a piece of furniture or other object. This device reflects a line of dialogue: “Conceal me what I am.” The first character we see is Feste (played by Ava Kronman), who enters through a window.

Although the first line in the script is Duke Orsino’s plaintive “If music be the food of love, play on,” this production begins with Feste singing an original song. The lyrics are by Bergquist, but the music has a unique genesis.

“I wrote the lyrics, and then recorded a voice memo of me improvising a tune to it,” Bergquist explains in an email from Theatre Intime. “Ava then based her version on the voice memo, but while learning, definitely altered bits and made it more truly her own… most of the entire tune is different and is almost entirely Ava’s.”

As a bookend to the song that ends the play, Bergquist’s first line is, “O wind and rain, with howls resounding.” Kronman sings the piece with affable, sincere phrasing.

One of Bergquist’s directorial decisions is to have Feste cover minor roles such as a ship captain, an officer, a priest, and Orsino’s courtiers. Kronman is up to the task, bringing vivacious stage presence.

In the kingdom of Illyria, Orsino (played by Teddy Feig, who infuses the role with flamboyant passion) longs for Olivia (Alexis Maze, whose performance is characterized by matter-of-fact, somewhat brusque poise). Olivia, however, is in mourning, and is not accepting any suitors.

Viola (Rilla McKeegan), an aristocratic-born woman, has been in a shipwreck on the coast; a Captain helps her to come ashore. She has lost contact with Sebastian, her twin brother, and believes that he has drowned.

Eventually, Viola disguises herself as a man — taking the name of Cesario — and goes to work in Orsino’s household. Later, Viola finds herself falling in love with Orsino (feelings which would be awkward to express, given her secret identity). When Orsino sends Viola to deliver romantic messages to Olivia, the latter falls for “Cesario.” McKeegan shines in delivering a monologue (“As I am Man… As I am Woman”) in which Viola reacts to this complicated triangle.

Later, we meet the still-living Sebastian (portrayed at the November 4 performance by Bergquist, who gives the character a debonair earnestness). He arrives in Illyria with his friend Antonio (given an impassioned portrayal by Andrew Duke), who rescues him from the shipwreck.

Members of Olivia’s household include her drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (portrayed with entertaining rowdiness by Lauren Owens); Sir Toby’s friend, Sir Andrew (Zoë Mermin, who makes the character equally boisterous); Maria (Olivia’s witty maid (Alex Gjaja, who accentuates the character’s blitheness); and Malvolio, Olivia’s stern, rather prudish steward (played by Graphic Designer Giao Vu Dinh, whose portrayal suggests prissy aloofness and guarded dignity).

Malvolio (whose name translates to “ill will”) runs Olivia’s household. However, he harbors secret ambitions to improve his social position by marrying her. After Malvolio reprimands Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for their drinking, Maria conceives a plan.

Imitating Olivia’s handwriting, she writes a letter for Malvolio to find, which gives him the impression that Olivia loves him — but she would like him to change crucial aspects of his wardrobe and demeanor. Of course, Malvolio’s resulting behavior actually is bewildering and off-putting to Olivia, who concludes that her trusted servant has gone mad.

This enables Maria and her co-conspirators to lock Molvolio in a room for “treatment” and torment him. In the guise of a priest, Feste declares him insane. (Eventually Malvolio is allowed to write to Olivia, to beg to be released.)

Kat McLaughlin’s lighting for this last scene is an eerie blue. Initially it only covers Malvolio’s space, but then moves out onto the rest of the stage, forcing us to consider: who, if anyone, is the insane one?

According to a program note by Theatre Intime’s General Manager Sabina Jafri, the casting of Malvolio — and the resulting dynamics of the scenes described above — caused concern.

“Our singular cast member of color, an Asian woman, plays the part of the oft-ostracized antagonist,” Jafri writes. After discussing the matter with Vu Dinh, the production moved forward. “However, we decided we would proceed with caution … Giao’s version of the character stands in contrast to the pompous and over-exaggerated way Malvolio is often played.”

The result is that Malvolio’s status as a victim is heightened, because his attitude never is domineering enough for the audience to dislike him. Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew come off as the real antagonists, because there seems to be no justification for their actions. It should be noted that the script supports this portrayal; a horrified Olivia remarks that Malvolio has been “most notoriously abused.”

If Malvolio has a character flaw, it seems to be that he considers himself to be apart from, and superior to, most of the others in Olivia’s household. He lacks a servant’s heart. Shakespeare suggests a contrast to this in Feste’s last line: “Our play is done, and we’ll strive to please you every day.”

Summing up this production’s unity of theme and design, Feste’s song — in tandem with the staging concepts of Bergquist and the creative team — yields an additional insight. At its best, theater — like roses that adorn either a room or a dress, can add splashes of color that let us momentarily forget “the wind and the rain.”

“Twelfth Night” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through November 13. For tickets, show times, and further information,n call (609) 258-5155 or visit