Preview: Shakespeare’s 12th Night–A Circus Comedy Comes to Theater Wit

The cast of 12th Night, a circus adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic comedy. Photo courtesy of Peter Serocki.

If circus be the food of love, play on. It’s a sentiment many experience in the presence of circus arts when masterfully displayed–and what if it also happens to have a little of the Bard’s slapstick farcical action? Yes Ma’am Circus is hoping that combo will draw the same kinds of spirited crowds that once went to Shakespeare’s plays back in the day–the highly engaged audience.

12th Night is slated to run at Theater Wit June 20-30, and although it is a title you may be familiar with from Lit class, there are couple of modern twists to this production. In addition to the riveting dialogs you are accustomed to with a Shakespeare comedy, you will also be treated to the dynamic and acrobatic perambulations of the cast, all of whom will be acting as well as performing circus.

Yes Ma’am Circus is on its second production, the first being It’s Not Me It’s You, A Paradise Lost Reimagining, which shows their penchant for the classics. But the rise of the small circus company is becoming a micro-circus trend in Chicago. Perhaps it is the fact that two circus schools have had several graduating classes in their pre-professional programs over the past few years, creating a surplus of circus graduates looking for work.

This season,in addition to Yes Ma’am, there is the nascent company called Corn Moon planning to do a big top rendition of The Odyssey around the parks. Physical theater companies like La Vuelta Ensemble, and Whisper Theater Colllective, and the circus collective Drifters Collective are all debuting new work this season as well. Rather than turning straight to corporate gigging or permanently relocating to distant lands, the individuals in these companies and collectives are working on growing the circus audience right along with their startup. Yes Ma’am’s director and puppet master AmancayKugler likes this trend. “In general it seems like circus is growing in Chicago. Teatro Zinzanni is coming here…we have maybe five different institutions now. More professional performers are coming here to train and to live, and now we’re having some companies finally pop up.”

Kugler thinks the draw for new circuses is the rich arts environment. “I think more theater, new exciting kinds of theater and blends between the disciplines are always a great thing to have in a city. Chicago is a vibrant hub for circus in the U.S. and it’s definitely(so) for theater. There’s a strong improv scene that’s here. So if you want your pick of venues and places that are willing to host small companies, Chicago is a much easier city to work in then than other ones that I’ve been to.”

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare would be a topic for a circus, when all of Shakespeare was up for modern interpretation after Chicago’s Shakespeare 400 in 2016—and the current Hamlet production at Chicago Shakespeare is a good example of the revamping of an old classic. But Kugler has her own reasons for modernizing 12th Night, “It’s multiple scenes over several acts and there’s a lot of very witty banter that is very difficult to understand in modern day language. It’s a really long play with a lot of words. So we condense–we kept the language…we did add one or two scenes.”

The show promises more than a bit of creative wordsmithing, it also boasts a lot of circus arts, which will make it appealing to young and old. “We have acro, we have juggling, including passing, and contact. There’s also, let’s see, silks, lyra, hula hoops, single point trapeze and a lot of clowning, which is a circus thing and a Shakespeare thing.” The whole circus cast has joined in on the production, with one artistically inclined performer, Maggie Karlin (who plays Sebastian and Feste) designing the shadow puppets that are used.

Kugler and cast also took some creative liberty with the characterization, making a political gesture by modernizing the plot to reflect today’s values, building up the role of Antonio and modifying the Duke Orsino’s character. Kugler explains, “Because Viola ends up with him at the end and I didn’t want to be rewarding this really offensive character.” Perhaps another indicator of intentional modernizing is the fact that there is a fair share of gender bending in the cast with some of the male roles (Sebastian, Antonio and Feste for example) being played by female and non-binary performers, a conscious flip on the Shakespearean tradition of having men play the female roles.

But taking a theatrical approach to circus has its challenges—foremost how to strike the right balance of words to action. Kugler understands this challenge, “What I really like circus for in theater is someone compared it to almost being like a musical or like the arias in an opera. It doesn’t necessarily advance the plot a lot. It might do a small plot advancement, but it lets you get to see the character’s emotional state more deeply than I think necessarily just words can convey or at the very least from a different, more visceral angle than words can always do.”

Kugler’s husband Matthew is also a performer in the show, and has assisted in the production in multiple ways. He explains how he finds the circus action augments the production, “I view circus as almost the musical score accompanying the text of the movie. If you were seeing a Marvel movie without the soundtrack, it would be a bizarre experience.”

12th Night will be at Theater Wit June 20-30, Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $20-$30 and are available online or at the Theater Wit box office.

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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.

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