In “Twelfth Night” — Shakespeare’s wild comedy of mistaken identities and unrequited love — twins Viola and Sebastian land separately on the shores of a mysterious country, called Illyria, after a terrible shipwreck. Each believes the other is dead and independently decides to make their ways into this new landscape disguised.
Viola (Cassandra Bissell) dresses as a young man and calls herself Cesario, a eunuch seeking to serve Duke Orsino; Sebastian (Jonathan Christopher MacMillan) flat out lies about his identity, and further confounds his sister’s masquerade every time he shows up.
But in the real world, no one would mistake the 5-foot-6-inch Bissell for the 6-foot-1-inch MacMillan, or think that she could come close to looking like a man.
“It all requires some serious suspension of belief, but that’s theatricality,” Bissell says. “That’s one of the things that makes live theater what it is.”
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But the ploy works in this made-up place where everyone is a little mad and in love with the wrong person — an essential part of Shakespeare’s comic formula.
And it’s a joke the audience is totally in on, MacMillan says.
“The characters on stage tell us we look alike, but the audience always knows,” he says.
Viola as Cesario captivates the population of Illyria, especially Orsino (Juan Rivera Lebron) the duke she serves, and Olivia (Christine Weber) the woman he pursues. Then to make things funnier, Olivia falls for Cesario.
“Part of what we’re commenting on is what love does to you — the ‘blindness’ that comes with the hormones,” Bissell says.
Viola is one of the Bard’s great “pant” roles, through which women enter the world of men as one of their own.
“Because of the way Shakespeare’s mind worked, and the way he investigated what went on in the world, he seems to love the opportunity to question what it means to be men and women, individually and in relationship to one another,” director Drew Barr says. “That interests me.”
These roles held a practical purpose in Shakespeare’s day when theater companies were entirely male. So, having a boy who was playing a woman get to play a woman pretending to be a boy made sense. (Those characters were probably cheaper to costume, too.) But in the context of today’s more gender fluid culture, the device opens up other opportunities to push the comedy, Barr says.
The production features a few women in roles that traditionally are male, and a chorus plays more gender neutral.
“We didn’t come into this production to make a definitive statement about gender identity,” Barr says. “But casting opens up certain opportunities to have fun. Fortunately, the play is filled with so many other universal, powerful questions that absorb those other (gender) issues. Shakespeare is writing so beautifully about universal human souls that gender isn’t as important.”
Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night”:
Note: Opening weekend is sold out. Call 336-9221 to get on the waiting list for each night. 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5 (preview), and Saturday, Aug. 6 (opening), 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7 (family night), and dates through Sunday, Aug. 28, ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $20-$45 general, $13 for ages 6-17 on family night only, $20 students with I.D. any performance. 336-9221, IdahoShakespeare.org.