The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW), one of the student-run theatre troupes on the University of Illinois campus, opened their season this weekend with a crowd-pleaser, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. It seemed apt that the itinerant troupe opened with the play from which their namesake is derived. The production featured a spare set and simple staging, complemented by live musicians (comprised of piano, flute, and violin), and a strong ensemble performance.
WYW, as an entirely student-operated company, has no dedicated performance space. This actually makes for consistently interesting productions in terms of staging. Often the group reserves an interesting local building, foyer or decorative hallway in one of the many historic buildings on the UIUC campus to adapt to their bare-bones productions. Twelfth Night took place in the Tudor-style upstairs hall of the restaurant at the Channing-Murray Foundation. By day, this space functions as a Unitarian Universalism chapel; the heavy banister and simple oak dais were put to interesting and effective use. Scenes marked by the antagonisms between Maria (Nora Ellis), Sir Toby (John Jager), Sir Andrew (Patrick Harris), and Malvolio (Nathan Luft) used the banister well to magnify a humor of the body. For example, Fabian (Liz Porter), Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew move about behind the high banister–here representing some hedgerows–while they watch Malvolio pine over Maria’s epistolary forgery. Every time Malvolio rotates in their direction, the whole group absolutely commits to hitting the deck with a shocking abruptness that consistently had the audience giggling.
Aside from the space itself, the only additional set pieces were a large table and a few chairs. The table was adjusted to a slight angle to gesture as to whether we were in Orsino’s or Olivia’s–an understated move that put stock in audiences’ imaginations. Also, Jager’s boisterously jovial and believably drunk Sir Toby played well off of Harris’ dead-pan Sir Andrew. Harris, who typically plays more serious roles, makes a smart choice of deploying his uniquely flat affect to create an understated Sir Andrew, allowing his jokes and puns to stand for themselves. Director Liana Alcantara takes a purist comedic approach to the text rather than playing up the dark comedy elements of Malvolio, Feste (Ian Pozdol) and Antonio (Anna Rose Floeter). Luft’s Malvolio is likable and works to promote a consistently good-humored tone throughout the production despite this flattening of tensions.
The well-rounded ensemble was supported by well-cast romantic leads. Orsino (Casey Theil) and Sebastian (Xander Franklin), while hamming it up at times, both found a nice balance to their characters combining leader with lover. Veteran performer Sarah Robinson lent the production some gravitas with her Olivia, but it was Sara Boland-Taylor’s Viola that nearly stole the show. She showed herself a close reader of the text and capitalized on a humorous whiney-yet-effervescent femininity to throw the problems and chaos of cross-dressing into relief. Much of the cast are newcomers to WYW, and many of them will be in the company’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe later this fall. I am excited to see what the group will do with the popular but controversial socio-economic French comedy. Able to pull off Shakespeare’s best play to bring along a date to, odds seem good that the rest of the season may be equally fruitful.