Idaho Shakespeare Festival opens a gender-fluid ‘Twelfth Night’

Twins and 'Twelfth Night'

Actors Cassandra Bissell and Jonathan MacMillan talk about the roles and Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of "Twelfth Night," The bard's wacky comedy of mistaken identity.
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Actors Cassandra Bissell and Jonathan MacMillan talk about the roles and Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of "Twelfth Night," The bard's wacky comedy of mistaken identity.

The brilliant thing about William Shakespeare’s plays is that they are entirely malleable, ready to be bent, shaped and adapted to changing thoughts, ideas and social conventions.

In 2016 — a year in which gender issues made headlines around the country — it’s impossible not to see Shakespeare’s most sexually charged and gender-bending play through the lens of gender fluidity. Under the insightful care of Idaho Shakespeare Festival resident director Drew Barr, the production that opened to a sold-out audience on Saturday, Aug. 6, is that “Twelfth Night” for our time.

Shakespeare often explored what it means to be a man or a woman. To answer that question, Barr’s approach turns cerebral in its intention. He focuses not so much on the question of gender, but the deeper question of identity. Who is behind the gender, and does it matter, especially in this country of Illyria? Love is everywhere and everyone’s a bit mad for it.

Shakespeare’s plot revolves around Viola (Cassandra Bissell) and Sebastian (Jonathan Christopher MacMillan), fraternal twins who are separated in a shipwreck, each one wrongfully believing the other to be dead. They each land on different shores of the fictional kingdom of Illyria. Viola disguises herself as a boy, actually a eunuch, to become the attendant of the local duke, Orsino (Juan Rivera Lebron). He is in love with the Countess Olivia (Christine Weber), who is in mourning for her father and brother. When she rebuffs Orsino’s advances, he sends Viola (newly renamed Cesario) to woo her in his name, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario/Viola instead.

As the play progresses, Sebastian arrives in Illyria. Since he is a dead ringer for his sister, everyone thinks he is Cesario and comic complications ensue. As all misunderstandings are resolved, the principals are happily paired off in the end, much to the consternation of Olivia’s acerbic steward Malvolio (Robert Lynn Berg), who is mocked by his peers, is spurned by Olivia and vows to gain revenge on everyone involved.

Barr almost collages his scenes together as the worlds of Orsino and Olivia overlap in the same space, set pieces fluidly rolling on and off to move the scenes as actors enter and exit, while occupying the same theatrical terrain.

Russell Metheny’s set blends Eastern and Western sensibilities with Persian blankets, Victorian candelabras and a gorgeous chandelier as the central focus. Dynamic vertical structures define the main space, allowing a view into a back section of the stage the audience can peer into to see what’s happening in different parts of the play — Sebastian being nursed back to health by Antonio (Peter Goik), Sir Andrew Ageucheek (Tom Ford) waiting for Cesario’s challenge.

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s luscious costumes also bridge those two worlds, with Orsino’s flowing robes and Olivia’s Victorian black gown with a long, flowing train.

This excellent cast handle’s Shakespeare’s language with finesse and clarity.

Bissell is nearly as ambiguously feminine as she is masculine in her Viola/Cesario role. Viola actually never reveals her true motivations for her Cesario ruse, though she arrives on shore in a white gown (a wedding dress perhaps), offering another idea for why she takes on a man’s persona. Bissell brings a beautiful longing to her affection for Orsino. Lebron exhibits deep passion for love in general, and wonderful confusion over his attraction to his eunuch attendant. The more he’s drawn to Cesario, the more he speaks of Olivia.

Weber’s Olivia moves from sweet sadness to giddy delight when she falls for Cesario, and then rapturous bliss when she happens on Sebastian.

MacMillian is as masculine as can be as Sebastian, which heightens the mistaken identity devise. And he’s wonderfully uncomfortable with Antonio’s affections, as his rescuer goes to great lengths to help him.

The riotous comedy comes from the denizens of Olivia’s estate — her maid Maria (Laura Perrotta); her uncle Sir Toby Belch (Aled Davies); a knight, Aguecheek (Ford), who seeks her hand; a boy, Fabian (Laura Welsh Berg) and her steward, Malvolio. You couldn’t ask for a better mix of comics at the top of their games for this artful performance of deception and revenge. Malvolio, a Puritan, tries to reform Toby from his drunken ways, so for revenge, Toby and the rest trick him into thinking Olivia is in love with him to get him to make a fool of himself. The pranksters have perfect timing— Ford and Davies especially nail their scenes together. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of his transformation, but suffice it to say, it works. Berg is unbelievably hysterical as his Malvolio falls for the ruse.

The cherry on top is M.A. Taylor’s Feste, the fool/singer/wise man of Illyria who offers commentary throughout. Taylor is in top form as the wry comic and merry prankster.

One fresh element is Barr’s placement of Jillian Kates on the set’s scaffold with her electric guitar, playing live during the performance. (Yes, she is the actress who plays Eliza in this season’s “My Fair Lady.”) She offers beautiful accompaniment to Taylor’s songs.

If you go

▪  When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, and Wednesday, Aug. 10, and dates through Sunday, Aug. 28

▪  Where: ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise

▪  Price: $20-$45 general, $13 for ages 6-17 on family night only, $20 students with I.D. any performance

▪  More information: 336-9221,