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Thursday, February 24, 2022

URI Theatre throws a party with Shakespeare’s riotous ‘Twelfth Night’

Spring semester opener starts March 3

Tony LaRoche

Carleigh Boyle (Olivia), left, and Peace Onyeme (Duke Orsino), right, compete for the hand of Riley Nedder (Viola/Cesario). (URI Photos by Jesse Dufault)

Two years into a pandemic, there’s probably no better time for a full-on party – a riotous, romantic comedy full of music, mistaken identity, separated and reunited twins, a bevy of clowns, and a love triangle that may be more of a quadrangle.

The University of Rhode Island’s Theatre Department fits the bill with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which opens Thursday, March 3, in J-Studio in the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, on the Kingston Campus. (Audience members are required to wear masks inside the Fine Arts Center.)

Believed to have been written around 1601 for the final night of the annual Twelve Days of Christmas festival, the play echoes the craziness of the holiday. Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck that strands them on the seacoast of Illyria. Fearing her brother has drowned, Viola disguises herself as “Cesario” to find work as one of Duke Orsino’s manservants.

In the Duke’s court, Viola’s alter ego, Cesario, becomes Orsino’s go-between in professing his love to Countess Olivia. Olivia is mourning the death of her brother but nonetheless falls for Viola disguised as Cesario. And Viola becomes smitten with the Duke. Adding to the craziness, Olivia’s pompous steward, Malvolio, is fooled into believing Olivia is actually in love with him.

“‘Twelfth Night’ is very, very funny but there’s a lot of heart and depth to it,” said visiting director Tyler Dobrowsky, a former associate artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company. “It is also quite romantic and then there’s the reunion between the long-lost twin siblings, which is profoundly moving.”

“‘Twelfth Night’ is definitely hilarious,” said Riley Nedder, a junior theatre and English major who plays Viola/Cesario. “The comedic subplots are just so outrageous and they intertwine with the main plots in ways that feel ridiculous but so believable.”

Carleigh Boyle, a senior theatre major who plays Olivia, called the play Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. It weaves a very good romantic story with the main characters, she said, but adds a lot of charm with its collection of clowns who ratchet up the miscommunication and confusion.

“Another reason why this is Shakespeare’s greatest is because of how beautiful the actual text is and the messages behind his characters,” she said. “It is not just a surface slapstick comedy. It is a play about grief and love and heartbreak, and how often they intersect. Love is the thing that heals everyone in the end.”

“The play is funny and incredible,” added Peace Onyeme, a senior double major in theatre and film who plays Orsino. “I have seen many productions and I’ve seen how Tyler and the cast take this play in an authentic way with big character choices and different perspectives. Also, the play is very gender-fluid, bright and melodious.”

URI’s production gives “Twelfth Night” a definite contemporary feel, while not exactly wedded to 2022. The set, designed by URI Theatre alumna Rénee Surprenant Fitzgerald, resembles a dance club for royalty – with a DJ booth to work in the play’s numerous musical interludes. Costumes, designed by Meghan Donnelly, another Theatre alumna, take the contemporary look to another level.

“We took a lot of inspiration from the Netflix [British high school comedy-drama], ‘Sex Education,’ which is similarly kind of set now but the fashion feels heightened,” Dobrowsky said.

Not contemporary is definitely the language. Dobrowsky has had a lot of experience with Shakespeare and working with younger actors, including overseeing Trinity’s education and outreach programming. At Trinity, he also directed “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Julius Caesar.” So, one area he focused at the start of rehearsals was making sure the actors understood the archaic, murky language – a hurdle for anyone who has read Shakespeare.

“The language is not easy. It can be very dense. It is rich poetry at times, but it’s language that requires a lot of diligence and work,” he said. “You literally have to understand what you’re saying if you’re going to act it well. Especially with comedy because the intonation is so important. The timing is so important.”

During table readings over Zoom, the actors focused on learning the language and its meaning, and getting the pronunciation down so the audience could also grasp the meaning, Onyeme said.

“As it is with most plays, the language is the most important thing,” added Owen Gilmartin, a senior theatre major who plays Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle and an instigator in fooling Malvolio. “We spent our first week only on the text: what we’re saying, what it means, how each character feels. And over the past few weeks of rehearsals, we’ve been figuring out how to best communicate that.”

Gilmartin said Shakespeare’s dialogue can be a big hurdle for potential theatre-goers. “What I have learned from this process is that as actors, it is our job to understand the language, not the audience’s, and that our number one priority is to convey the meaning and to make the audience understand. I would tell a prospective audience to drop that work, come in and let us show you why ‘Twelfth Night’ is Shakespeare’s funniest comedy.”

Added Nedder, “Our production of ‘Twelfth Night’ is a party. Be ready to laugh, to sigh and to fall in love alongside us.”

“Twelfth Night” runs March 3-5 and March 10-12 at 7:30 p.m. and March 6 and 13 at 2 p.m. in J-Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased at the URI Theatre box office in the Fine Arts Center or by calling (401) 874-5843. For more information on tickets and the University’s COVID-19 policy, go to the ticket website.