Review: Chicago Shakespeare Sparks Love and Joy With Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on.” (Duke Orsino, Act I, Twelfth Night)

At its center, Twelfth Night is a story about love. Falling in love, out of love, and everything in between. Love can be messy, but it can also be beautiful. Each of the characters has their own journey with love, and Duke Orsino announces the above at the beginning of his as he woos Lady Olivia. As love fills him with bliss, he urges the musicians to play on. 

As much as the quote describes Duke Orsino’s state at the top of the play, this also offers the perfect backdrop for director Tyrone Phillips’ production. As soon as the lights come up, Phillips fills the space with music and wonder. Set in the Caribbean, Feste (Israel Erron Ford) leads the ensemble into the story. Live music plays as the space fills with dance and laughter. Phillips’ design team collaborates to fill the stage with a mix of bright colors in every aspect of the design—from lighting and projection to set and costumes. Pink, orange, and green consume the stage, with twinkly lights above to complete the picture. To put it simply, Phillips and his team have transformed the space into one of magic—a world in which anything can happen. 

The company of Twelfth Night. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

As I sat there taking in these opening moments, I know I personally felt a similar feeling to Orsino. Looking around at the audience surrounding me dancing in their seats, it was clear I was not the only one wishing that this party filled with music and joy would continue. 

William Shakespeare’s comedy follows Viola (Jaeda LaVonne) as she finds herself shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. Separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Justen Ross), she disguises herself as a man (Cesario) to work for Duke Orsino (Yao Dogbe).  As she sets out to woo Lady Olivia (Christina Clark) on behalf of Orsino, Viola finds that she has fallen in love with the duke herself. As with any of Shakespeare’s comedies, nothing ever quite goes according to plan. 

Phillips directs this production with specificity—providing an easy access point for audiences who may even be less familiar with Shakespeare’s language to follow from moment to moment. Full of mistaken identities, failed declarations of love, and witty banter, you may just find yourself on the edge of your seat—both curious and nervous to see what may happen next. 

Viola (Jaeda LaVonne, at right), in disguise as Cesario, secretly falls in love with Duke Orsino (Yao Dogbe). Photo by Liz Lauren

As much as the love stories are full of humor, Phillips and his ensemble also infuse them with heart—creating some truly emotional moments. In a key moment in Act II, Orsino sends for Feste to play some music. Feste begins with a jauntier tune, and Orsino and Viola (disguised as Cesario) start to dance. They begin with laughter, silently challenging each other to see who can dance bigger and wilder. As Feste’s music starts to slow, the mood shifts. The room is filled with laughter, and slowly all we as an audience can hear is the music. No longer is the focus on the dance moves, but rather each other. As the love ballad continues, we see Orsino and Viola become lost in each other. LaVonne and Dogbe fill this moment with authenticity as they allow themselves to simply stare at each other and ignore everything else in the room. As the silence in the audience continues, it becomes clear that after watching Viola fall deeper in love with Orsino, this is the moment for which we had all been waiting.  

The design team features scenic design by Sydney Lynne, lighting design by Xavier Pierce and projections by Mike Tutaj. Willow James is sound designer with music direction by Robert Reddrick. Sadira Muhammad is movement director. Costumes are by Christine Pascual. Jessica Forella is stage manager.

Full of magic and wonder, Twelfth Night is not to be missed. If you are a die-hard Shakespeare fan, then this production will not disappoint. If you are newer to his work, Phillips’ production offers in my opinion the perfect introduction. It is rare I find a Shakespeare play that is so easy to follow, bringing nuance and new discoveries to a text that has been around for ages.

Twelfth Night runs through November 26 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E Grand Ave. Tickets are $38-$92 for Tuesday-Sunday performances. Running time is two hours with an intermission.  

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Lauren Katz