By Mike Zeleznik, news correspondent
Malvolio swaggering towards Lady Olivia with yellow stockings cross-gartered around his legs is the “Twelfth Night” audiences remember: A raunchy tale of mistaken identity and dastardly hijinks. Shakespeare did not, however, intend for Malvolio to suggestively bounce on a pink exercise ball as if it were a mechanical bull while delivering his lines. The Northeastern Shakespeare Society took the creative liberty of adding that for their production at Faneuil Hall on Sunday, Sept. 18.
After a successful spring run on campus, the Shakespeare Society traveled to Faneuil Hall to revive their rendition of the classic comedy “Twelfth Night,” using only three blue and three pink exercise balls as a set.
“We loved the zaniness of the idea, and it works with the metaphor of this unsteady world that can’t last,” Connor O’Brien, a senior theatre major and director of the production, said. “If you sit on an exercise ball, it’s a very unsteady surface.”
While the set and many props are blue and pink in a play that relies heavily on gender, the colors do not represent the two perceived dualities.
“We’re doing the inverse of what the audience might expect,” society president and senior communication studies major Noah Pilchen said. “Instead of Orsino being a man and being blue, he’s pink because he starts off hopelessly in love whereas Olivia is in mourning, and she has more typically male attributes.”
The play begins with twins Viola and Sebastian separated in the country of Illyria after a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a man, “Cesario,” and serves as page to Orsino, a Duke whose heart yearns for Countess Olivia. The cross-dressing and gender-swapping nature of the play causes comedic tension among the characters, including the Countess’ sneering top aide Malvolio, whose self-centeredness leads him to believe Olivia loves him.
In deciding how to remix the original production, Pilchen and the director conferred with the cast in a roundtable brainstorming session. From this session came exercise balls, blue and pink balloon swords and a candy wedding ring (which was later scrapped).
“We’re always looking for input from the performers,” Pilchen said. “‘Is this funny?’ [The director and I] think it’s funny, but is it?’ and [the cast members give] their suggestions.”
Having already done the show in the spring, most of the actors transitioned back into rehearsal mode relatively quickly. Two days before the show at Faneuil, O’Brien made suggestions to the cast – “Can you try falling asleep standing up?” – before rehearsing out of costume in a midsize classroom, all while heeding the director’s advice.
Picking up a show five months after its first run presented some challenges. Pilchen stepped in to play Orsino after the original actor, Gary Wilson, graduated. Freshman engineering major Griffin Rademacher learned the roles of both Valentine and Curio immediately after joining the society.
“It was a little intimidating at first, because I’d be standing on one side of the set and guys would point at me to go to the other side,” Rademacher said. “I’ve gotten the hang of it since then.”
Next up for the Shakespeare Society is their take on “Romeo and Juliet,” which will use six desks, six chairs and a chalkboard for a set and will star two women as the iconic couple.
Pilchen, who graduates in December, hopes to leave behind a legacy of “mak[ing] Shakespeare great again,” as the tip jar they placed on the Faneuil Hall street states.
“People [dock] Shakespeare all the time,” Pilchen said. “They appreciate his genius, but they don’t always enjoy it… but you can’t just write it off. You need to experience it. You need to see it. We don’t want this to be ‘ruffled-collar Shakespeare,’ we want this to be innovative and, most of all, relevant.”
Photo by Dylan Shen