A very local 'Twelfth Night' hits the stage at the Guthrie

Two people sit on a swing with a third in the background of the stage
Emily Gunyou Halaas as Viola, Sun Mee Chomet as Olivia and Michael Hanna as Sebastian in the Guthrie Theater’s production of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare.
Photo Courtesy of Dan Norman

A new production of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" opening at the Guthrie Theater this week will put a local spin on the much-loved play.

The entire cast and the director all have Minnesota roots, but the fact that many of the actors have worked together before eased only some of the challenges of interpreting the bard's text.

A play as complex as "Twelfth Night" has many details to work through, including improvising a kind of false ending to the show.

During a recent rehearsal, director Tom Quaintance clapped during what appeared to be the show’s ending. Then, someone started playing the guitar while another shouted, “Don’t leave, don’t leave! There is more entertainment!”

Actors swarmed the rehearsal stage. Turning to an imaginary audience member, actor Sarah Agnew said, "Hey! I see you put your jacket on! Sit back down!"

While Agnew barked orders, actor Luverne Seifert looked a little taken aback, and actors Sally Wingert and Joy Dolo both wore slightly evil grins. These are just some of the many faces that will be familiar to regular Twin Cities theater goers.

Actor Jim Lichtscheidl plays Malvolio, the haughty servant who becomes the butt of the plays famed practical joke involving yellow stockings. He’s worked with many of these actors over the years.

A man sits on a stairway gripping the railings.
Actor Jim Lichtscheidl plays Malvolio the self-important servant who is tricked into believing the way to the heart of Maria, the woman he believes may love him, is by wearing yellow stockings. Sadly for him, one of Maria’s pet peeves is men who don those very color of footwear.
Courtesy of Dan Norman

"It feels like there is a shorthand," he said. "So like we have a step-up on how we deal with each other. Our tricks..."

"He looked at me when he said 'tricks'" interrupted Wingert, a Guthrie veteran who has played on many other stages around the community. She's worked with several of the actors in this Twelfth Night cast.

"We're maybe away from someone for even two years and then you are back in a room with them," she said. "And actors, I think, achieve intimacy really quickly with each other, and this room is kind of special even by those standards."

Group cohesion helps because this is Shakespeare, after all, with all of the hard work that brings.

The Guthrie production is Wingert's third Twelfth Night, but she says approaching any Shakespeare text is always hard.

“Even if you are doing the same part and you came back to it, you go, 'Now what does that mean?'" she said. "Even though at one point you knew!"

Actor Sun Mee Chomet said she is up for it. Chomet plays Olivia, one of the confused lovers in this play of shipwrecked siblings, hidden and mistaken identity, as well as some cross-dressing.

"It is an intellectual challenge for your entire life," she said. "As an actor it changes you internally because it makes you smarter."

They are all learning, though — all while performing the play on a multi-level set built on the Guthrie's famed thrust stage, much of it covered in a couple of inches of water.

Director Tom Quaintance is in charge of making it all work. He grew up in the Twin Cities, just blocks from the original Guthrie. His first job was showing people to their seats at that theater.

"[I] was ushering the season of Liviu Ciulei's 'Midsummer Night's Dream,'" he said. "And it's the reason I am a director. It was the show that opened me up to what a director could do."

Quaintance is now producing artistic director at the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Virginia. He says "Twelfth Night" is a play about all aspects of love, from romance to everyday human connection.

"To be able to explore just the deep longing that we all want to be connected to each other,” he said. “To explore it with this group of people who walk into the room connected is a gigantic gift."

Another great gift of Shakespeare is the way his centuries-old stories can address current issues.

Lichtscheidl, the actor playing Malvolio, said “Twelfth Night” is about misunderstandings and misperceptions about identity, a theme that resonates right now.

"Not only what you perceive about yourself, but what others perceive of you and how it can be mistaken sometimes," he said.

And Chomet, the actor playing Olivia, talks about how “Twelfth Night” begins in a dark and sad place — with shipwreck and death — but shows how the human spirit works to return to joy and laughter.

"I feel that we need that more than anything right now," she said. "We are in a place of uncharted territory in our country and I just feel like we need to remember that we are connected and that we can laugh hysterically and that brings us healing."

“Twelfth Night” is in previews right now, but opens appropriately enough on Friday, Valentine’s Day.

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