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BWW Feature: TWELFTH NIGHT at Guthrie Theater

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BWW Feature: TWELFTH NIGHT at Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater has long been associated with the plays of William Shakespeare and often includes his works in the season. Currently, TWELFTH NIGHT plays on the Wurtele Thrust Stage and the well-loved story of siblings separated by the stormy sea, criss-crossed lovers and fools is a delightful way to keep the tradition alive. "Plays" is the key word in this show - Director Tom Quaintance and his creative team give the ensemble cast a virtual playground to explore with the technical elements, music, props and costumes supporting the fun.

Two of the cast members, Guthrie vets Sun Mee Chomet (Olivia/Valentine) and Jim Lichtscheidl (Malvolio/Curio), helped break down a little of how the production design elements shaped their performances and shared some behind-the-scenes secrets of TWELFTH NIGHT, starting with explaining what the show means to each of them.

"(It) is about the journey from grief back to joy," said Chomet, who plays one of the more serious characters, Olivia, who spends a great deal of time in mourning for her father and brother, till she finds love that brings her out to the light again. "To deny ourselves joy, laughter, music and the madness of love goes against what we were put on this earth to do. We are meant to let go and love."

Lichtscheidl's primary role is Malvolio, a steward in Olivia's house of mourning who attempts to maintain the decorum for his mistress, whom he cares for. Only when he thinks the feeling is reciprocated, he shares his feelings, too. "TWELFTH NIGHT to me is about keeping up appearances," he said. "Almost everyone in the show has a public side and a private side; and reveals them both at some point. I think that's what delights audiences the most - recognizing these human traits in themselves."

Scenic Designer Naomi Dawson's industrial construction with platforms of varying levels, a moat covering a large swath of the stage, a huge swing hovering above the set and décor elements like strings of lights and red and white balloons that seemed to increase in numbers throughout the show created what was called "a playground for the actors," and the opportunity to use them in their performances.

Chomet, often on a perch on the highest platform overseeing her household, found it to be both a big challenge in not blocking sightlines but also enjoyable. "It is perhaps the most wonderful view [of the] audience in the balcony of the [Wurtele] Thrust Stage that I have experienced," she said. "As a woman of small stature playing Olivia, it is great to get that height to establish her power and command of her household."

The large swing held up to three people and was frequently used throughout the show between Sebastian's (Michael Hanna) muscle-flexing one-man act to what Chomet said the ensemble referred to as "the swing-dance," a longer dance-break of sorts between the reunited lovers, choreographed by the movement director, Carl Flink of Black Label Movement, a modern dance company in the Twin Cities. She said, "It was a coda of sorts -- a way to encapsulate the whole journey of the play through the whimsy and playfulness that a swing holds for so many of us from childhood. What is better than a swing that can hold three people at once?"

Perhaps the most challenging set element was the large pool of water that was at most ankle deep. Each actor had only a couple days to get used to actually using the water in rehearsal and when asked how they used the element in their performances, Lichtscheidl said it represents the lower status of people, and he spends the majority of the show trying to avoid it. "It has a way of finding me, however, in the prison scene."

For Olivia, Chomet naturally stayed out of the water on her high platform for the most part, because she has dedicated her life to grief. "To do so at such a young age is against human nature. We are meant to love, to experience joy after grief, to feel passionately mad." Her character finally enters the water for the first time when the twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, are reunited on stage for the first time - a moment of surprise and wonder for her smitten Olivia. "The water is a place of folly, joy or transformation," she said.

She said that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria, the story's fools, spend the most time in the water. Emily Gunyou Halaas (Viola) and Joy Dolo (Sir Andrew) both had to navigate some wipe-outs during rehearsal, she said when asked if there were slips and spills in this unique environment. "We all supported them as they figured out how to fall intentionally in a safe way."

The production brought to mind that several of the elements are highlighted - the water, the "fiery" hot lovers and air - those ever-increasing-in-number helium balloons. While mostly set décor and not for the actors to interact with as often, they did provide comic fodder for Dolo's Sir Andrew and a foil for Malvolio as he was locked in a subterranean cell. "...the balloons get their revenge by surrounding me in the prison," Lichtscheidl said. Court fool Feste pops them around Malvolio as a way of torturing him - and perhaps anyone easily surprised in the house.

Added Lichtscheidl, "I have great fun releasing the air from a balloon to quiet Sir Toby (Sally Wingert) and his gang during the drunk scene."

Chomet's more serious take on the increasing balloon population: "My (Olivia's) home used to be a place of joy, parties and festive life. Before my father and brother died, I believe that Illyria and my household were filled with laughter, wit and bright colors. The play is a journey back to what was - what my father and brother would have wanted - which is for me to return to love and light in the here and now."


Musical interlude

An on-stage band is another highlight of this production, with ensemble members providing the modern-sounding track for the action, created by Sound Designer/Composer Sartje Pickett. Jim Lichtscheidl shared how an innocent enhancement lead to an opportunity for him:

"I had 'drums' listed under special skills on my resume, which really meant I could keep a beat on the bongos. The first day of rehearsal found me behind a full drum kit and looking at drum charts as if written in a foreign language. I fessed up and confessed I play by ear, and after a crash course and many YouTube videos, now I confidently play percussion for all the songs in the show. I have a blast in the show playing drums."


More information: Tickets, details and media including more about the music and production design: https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2019-2020-season/twelfth-night/, TWELFTH NIGHT runs through March 22, 2020.

Photo: By Dan Norman: Sun Mee Chomet (Olivia), Sarah Jane Agnew (Maria), Jim Lichtscheidl (Malvolio) and Luverne Seifert (Feste) of TWELFTH NIGHT.


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From This Author Kristen Hirsch Montag