Twelfth Night at Hartford Stage -- A Stunning Production of a 'Dangerous Comedy'

By Karen Isaacs

For the second year, Hartford Stage is ending its season with an outstanding production of a Shakespeare play. This time it is Twelfth Night or What You Will running to June 16 and directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak.

First of all, Tresnjak brings a solid directorial concept to this comedy about gender and love.  In his program notes he calls it a "dangerous comedy" and this concept is clear throughout. It is dangerous for so many reasons: the confusion of sexual identities, the challenge of class, and the practical joke that goes dangerously far. Even the subtitle creates a subtle play on words: What You Will can be what you do or what you want.

Twelfth Night is about love and the fact that we often don't recognize who we truly love. Olivia, a wealthy countess is in mourning for her father and brother and refuses to see anyone. Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is in love with her and continues to send her entreaties which she rejects. At the same time, Viola has been saved from a shipwreck where she assumes her twin brother has died. She disguises herself as young boy (Cesario) and becomes a trusted servant to Orsino and a go between with Olivia. The confusion? Viola falls in love with Orsino, Olivia is attracted to Cesario, and Orsino is confused and frightened by his attraction to the young servant.

The complication is that Viola's brother (Sebastian) proves to be alive and well and arrives in the same area causing various identity confusions. In addition, Olivia's maid (Maria), her drunken uncle (Sir Toby Belch), a protehe who Sir Toby is urging to court his niece (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) play a dangerous practical joke on Olivia's steward, the sanctimonious Malvolio.

The audience immediately recognizes that this comedy is about confusion when they see the giant hedge maze that scenic designer Alexander Dodge has created. It establishes the confusions, dead ends and even the power status of the characters. Costume designer Linda Cho has helped with the confusions by dressing Olivia and her accompanying ladies in almost identical costumes. In addition, she has added to the comedy with outrageous costumes for Sir Andrew and Sir Toby.

Overall the cast is excellent. Those who know the play will appreciate the subtlety when Lea Coco who plays Orsino recognizes his attraction to Kate MacCluggage as the young boy Cesario/Viola and the amazement of his other attendants. Stacey Yen as Olivia is equally amazed by her attraction to Cesario, a servant. In the comic roles, Michael Spencer-Davis is appropriately a drunken lout as Sir Toby and Adam Green has a field day as the clueless Sir Andrew Aguecheek. If one were to quibble, it would be that Jennifer Regan as Maria, the maid who sets up the practical joke, seems too harsh and vindictive rather than fun-loving.

Bruce Turk as Malvolio bring such humanity to the role of the steward whose dreams and pretensions are so drastically exposed and ridiculed, that the audience is likely to feel uncomfortable at the cruelty of the practical joke and the jokers. It is this part of the play that has always been for this reviewer the most problematic. Unlike the comic complications in most of other Shakespeare comedies, this complication seems just too cruel to be funny.

But, since it is a comedy, you can rest assure that Malvolio survives though perhaps chastened and the couples end up with the mates that they are destined for  as Olivia finds Cesario's brother an acceptable substitute for Viola's persona and  Orsino is relieved to find that Viola is a woman. Even Sir Toby and Maria tie the knot.

You owe it to yourself to see this terrific production of Twelfth Night, part of the Shakespeare for a New Generation, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Twelfth Night is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through June 16. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers June 5, 2013 and online at

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