Go Do This: Twelfth Night

Well, Susan Howson wrote too much about this wonderful play.

Photo by Chris Smith

What it is

Twelfth Night is a play by William Shakespeare, who is a little-known European playwright known for his killer hairdo and the fact that he left his wife his second-best bed in his will.

What does “Twelfth Night” even mean? Congrats! You have stumbled on one of my most favorite things to be pedagogic about! The “12 days of Christmas” end on January 6th (or its eve, January 5th, depending on how you count) with the twelfth night…of Christmas.

Various things happen on Twelfth Night in various traditions (this Wikipedia page has some ones that are a delight to picture within your head–one involves “two to three hundred marked young men rush[ing] about the streets with whips and bells”), and one of those things is entertainment. This play was performed thusly.


Photo by Chris Smith

But really the play itself doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas, second-best beds, or whips. It does, however, involve hairdos.

It’s a cross-dressing comedy, which by a stretch of the imagination, is what every Shakespearean comedy was, since they all starred only men (ladies in the Elizabethan era having their time largely taken up with creatively masking odors and picking fleas off pet rats). Viola is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria (a real place now divided up between Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina!), separated from her brother (whom she thinks has died) (GUESS WHAT!), and unsure of what to do with her life.

It’s a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, some of us this very week, and Viola makes the bewildering decision to change her hair, dress up like a man, and go to work for Illyria’s Duke Orsino. Orsino is busy trying to woo another lady (Olivia), and he asks Viola (now Cesario) to help. Everybody falls in love with the wrong person, which by the end of the play might just turn out to be the right person, but not before a whole lot of confusion and gender-bending and “What! Gasp! Have I kissed yon member of the same sex? Fie upon my soul and let me vomit right here in the elderberries.” Some people even like a person who they think is one sex, and then as soon as that sex is revealed to be the opposite sex, decide immediately to love them! Without any change in their appearance!

The subject of who’s using which public bathroom never comes up.

As usual, the best comedy within the comedy comes from the more secondary characters. Malvolio (Lady Olivia’s trusted servant), Sir Toby Belch (her uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (his pal), and Feste (the fool). Their subplot, with Olivia’s lady-in-waiting Maria, is wildly funny, involving drunkenness, hiding, yellow stockings, and a lot of running around.

There are two swordfights, which always make me nervous, not because they seem particularly dangerous, but because I bet they always stress the actors out and I picture them practicing and it makes me feel weird. There are also a couple of songs, which keep me from being too nervous. Thanks, songs!

Who’s behind it

Quill Theatre, one of my very favorite companies in town. Artistic Director Jan Powell didn’t direct this one (she’s doing The Merchant of Venice later this summer), but Steve Perigard does a dang good job, particularly with the comedic scenes, which are crucially timed so as to bring out the most LOLs.

And LOL we did, particularly at Thomas Cunningham (Malvolio) and Evan Nasteff (Aguecheek). The former makes us all agree to just laugh at a very upper class English accent–let’s just laugh at it, guys! Rolling R’s is a funny thing to take the time to do! And the latter…man, does he play a naïve, drunken idiot super well. If only we could all be Andrew Aguecheeks every night of our lives, schemin’ around, sittin’ on audience laps, writing letters and then acting them out. Whoa, I may have just figured out what to do with my life. Thanks, Evan Nasteff!

Photo by Chris Smith

Photo by Chris Smith.

Special props to David Janosik (Sir Toby Belch) and Luke Schares (Feste). One of you has the voice of an angel, I’ll leave it to you to figure out.

Other than those guys, the ladies stole the show. Liz Blake White as Olivia was unrecognizable from when I saw her last in Romeo and Juliet. From desperate teen to cool, calculated, but lovelorn noblewoman–I really had to look at my program twice to make sure I had the right person. I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just say it. Here goes: her hair was beautiful, and I spent actual time admiring it. She didn’t have a ton of jokes in the script, but the ones she did have were memorably delivered. Elisabeth Ashby was a solid Maria, with a devilish smile and a willingness to accept a hand on her breast all for the sake of a dirty joke.

Oh, man, speaking of dirty jokes, there’s a C-word joke that was handled gracefully? Can you believe I just wrote that sentence??

Where it is

Twelfth Night is one-half of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, which has been running at Agecroft Hall for 18 years.

Because this is the last theatre review I will write for the foreseeable future, I will bore you with all my words about Agecroft Hall, the Best Place in Town. Agecroft, which I hate to include so soon after referring to a C-word joke, is a beautiful Tudor estate built in Elizabethan England and BROUGHT OVER to the shores of the James River by rich people almost a century ago. You can read about it here.

It’s full of sweeping lawns and gorgeous gardens, and you can see all of those for free, although I recommend a house tour if you’ve got a couple bucks. In fact, the whole place is so pleasant and soothing that I recommend we all get together there right now for a hug session.

Here is a photo of my son at Agecroft, which he calls “the Enchanted Garden,” because he is made from my DNA and has no choice but to be a hopeless romantic.


Yeah, a picture of my kid! It’s my last review, I’ll do whatever I want!

Anyway, I’ve seen Midsummer here, I’ve seen Comedy of Errors here, I’ve seen all sorts of things. Agecroft’s courtyard is the way to watch Shakespeare, and probably also the way to do anything else.

Agecroft is in Windsor Farms, where you’ll get the pleasure of parking on the curbs of the wealthy and mussing up their view for an hour or two. The address is 4305 Sulgrave Road.

When it is

Twelfth Night is playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights through June 26th. All shows are at 7:30 PM. It’s dusk, it’s beautiful, you’ll love it.

How much it costs

$30 for adults, $25 for seniors, and $20 for students. You can buy tickets online! Just like the Elizabethans would have wanted!

Other things to note

There’s plenty of parking, even without sidling up to fancy house and their impeccable curbs.

If you don’t go do this, you will…

Quite literally break my heart. JK, quite figuratively. Quill Theatre and Agecroft deserve everything that either you or I can do for them. It’s been my pleasure.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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