Review: Gender Bends in Midsommer Flight’s Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a mistaken-identity rom-com designed as a frolic to entertain at the end of the holiday season (there is nothing about Christmas in this play itself). That it is Shakespeare at his most broadly comic can be summed up in the names given three major characters: Sir Toby Belch; Sir Andrew Aguecheek (ague means violent fever); and Malvolio (which means ill will).

Even in conventional performances, you can see the influence of Shakespeare in modern comedy, including that of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. And the production being staged by the Midsommer Flight troupe at the Lincoln Park Conservatory through December 18 is anything but conventional.

First, the setting. Performances take place in a wing of the conservatory filled with plants and Christmas decorations, including giant nutcrackers. There is no stage, but rather the actors scurry in a lane flanked on each side by two rows of folding chairs; scenery is limited to two stools that are shifted around to suit the action. It is unusual and, for the most part, affecting.

The actors are costumed in modern clothing, and for another modern-day sight gag, the flask-swigging Belch is handed a bottle of Pedialyte.

Second, this is not your grandfather’s Twelfth Night. Teaching director Bex Ehrmann, who created this production, said it is “queering the Bard in an effort to tell a more expansive story.” The cast includes trans and non-binary actors, and the final plot twist in this adaptation underscores Ehrmann’s statement.

Reginald Hemphill (left) as the rowdy Sir Toby Belch and Travis Shanahan (right) as his inept sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Midsommer Flight's Twelfth Night. Photos by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.

The story line devolves from the arrival of noblewoman Viola in Illyria after she has been rescued from a shipwreck that she believes ended the life of her twin brother Sebastian. She disguises herself as a man named Cesario and gains employ as a page to Duke Orsino, the country’s ruler, with whom she secretly falls in love.

Things get mighty complicated, though. Orsino sends Cesario to Countess Olivia, on whom he has a massive crush, to pledge his love. But Olivia instead falls in love with Cesario (who she too thinks is a man) after being dazzled by the passion of his pitch for Orsino.

Meanwhile, there is a major subplot involving Malvolio, Olivia’s haughty steward. A conspiracy is hatched by Belch, Olivia’s hard-drinking but jolly cousin; Aguecheek, his nerdy sidekick; and servant Fabian to trick Malvolio into believing Olivia is in love with him, causing him to make a royal ass of himself.

Near the end of the play, things get even more twisted when Sebastian, very much alive, appears and is confused by multiple characters—including Olivia—for Cesario.

The hijinks are carried off well by a strong cast led by the very youthful Maddy Shilts as Viola/Cesario and Ebby Offord as Olivia. Rusty Allen’s performance as Malvolio reminded me of Alan Cumming, and Reginald Hemphill makes Belch a likable ne’er-do-well. North Rory Homewood has fun as the singing jester Feste, who kibitzes with all the other characters.

John Drea does a fine job in the role of Orsino, which mainly has the character raging in frustration about being denied by Olivia. He is, though, less prominent than in Shakespeare’s original text, which has a happy-ever-after ending in which he becomes betrothed to Viola after she assumes her true identity. In this adaptation, Orsino is left empty-handed (down goes the patriarchy!).

Most of the performers are also talented musicians who warmed up the audience with a “pre-curtain” mini-concert that ranged from American songbook classics such as “Night and Day”and “The Very Thought of You” to Sandi Thom’s “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” and “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart.

Photo by Bob Benenson

Even with all the chaotic comedy, this is Shakespeare, with some of the most familiar lines in literature, including, “If music be the food of love, play on,” and “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

This version of Twelfth Night is well recommended, but it might not be for everyone (and not just because the ending twist might offend your red-state relatives visiting for the holidays).

Artistically, it is not for Shakespeare literalists. Physically, it’s not for folks who would be uncomfortable with actors just inches away shouting and singing. And environmentally, the downsides to the lovely conservatory setting are the brightness of the overhead lights and the warmth and humidity that is more about the health of the plants than the comfort of the theatergoers.

The next performance of Midsommer Flight’s Twelfth Night will take place at the Lincoln Park Conservatory on Thursday, December 8, with other performances on December 9-11 and December 15-18. All performances begin at 7:30pm. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested minimum donation of $30. Transportation by taxi/shared ride or public transit is recommended, as parking near the conservatory is limited and expensive. Allow extra time for arrival because the ZooLights exhibit brings in heavy traffic.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.