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Flyleaf Modernizes "Twelfth Night"

The performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the 1870 Town Hall, 12 Woodward Ave., Berlin.

Anne Slotnick as Viola and Rob Slotnick as Sebastian in "Twelfth Night." Submitted.
Anne Slotnick as Viola and Rob Slotnick as Sebastian in "Twelfth Night." Submitted.

In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," Mariagrazia LaFauci says, "When Olivia falls in love with Cesario, she sends her own messenger to deliver a ring."

"It’s like the Shakespearean version of a flirty Snapchat," LaFauci says.

This weekend, the Flyleaf Theater Company will present a 21st century version of "Twelfth Night," directed by LaFauci.

The performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the 1870 Town Hall, 12 Woodward Ave., Berlin. 

Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, and $10 for Berlin residents.

The proceeds will help fund Flyleaf's "Impacting the Community Through Thoughtful Theater" campaign.

Flyleaf is based in Westborough and Berlin.  Westborough High School 1999 graduate Jonathan Eldridge, a Northborough resident, is among its founders,

"Twelfth Night" is the fourth show of Flyleaf's second season.

"After the Friday night performance, we will have a little post-show event with light refreshments, and local musician Ryan Kendall (who wrote music for the show) will be performing a few songs," LaFauci said during an e-mail interview. 

"After the Sunday matinee we will have a talkback and Q&A with the cast and crew. We encourage high school students to attend the Sunday performance and stay for the talk back."

Patch

So, what inspired the theatre company to do a modern version of "Twelfth Night" rather than a more traditional one?

Mariagrazia LaFauci

I think when approaching Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s important to start with the question, “What about this play makes the story still worth telling right now?” and go from there. 

With "Twelfth Night," there were a few ideas my brain kept circling around, and they all kind of came together in the current version of the production. 

First, of course, there’s this huge question of gender and sexuality and identity that is front and center in this play. It’s something I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only recently begun to think about! I’ve always taken for granted that I am a straight female, and though that’s still true, it’s strange to me that I never once considered the idea that people might not fit as neatly into these little pre-prepared boxes as well as I did. I have these very distinct memories of being a little kid and definitively knowing certain toys and clothes were not meant for me because I was a girl, and even then it bothered me that I couldn’t ask for Hot Wheels for Christmas. That’s an idea that’s definitely starting to change in the way people raise their kids. 

As I grew older, I started to meet people who had discovered or decided somewhere that gender didn’t need to factor into their lives in the way it had dictated mine. They refused to be put into binaries of male or female, gay or straight, and I was so shocked that it had taken me so long to recognize the fact that all these alternatives exist.

I’m still grappling with the differences between orientation and sexuality and sex and gender and identity and presentation and so forth, because those are all different things! 

The incredible thing is that I think a lot of those alternatives also exist very comfortably within the world of this play. 

Viola identifies as a woman, but seems comfortable presenting as a male. Orsino falls in love with her as a boy, and never once calls her by her female name or sees her in female clothing, and they are both okay with that, so his orientation is not as straightforward as it may seem. 

Viola and Olivia also have a complex relationship. Viola never says that she cannot love Olivia because she’s a woman, she cannot love Olivia because her heart already belongs to Orsino. 

And Olivia falls in love with the most feminine man in the play. 

Not to mention that at the time, men would have played all of these roles, so there’s another layer of complication to the whole thing. 

This play truly is ahead of its time in allowing for flexibility in sexuality, orientation, and identity. In fact, I think it’s ahead of our time—the struggles of trans* and queer people are still considered part of a fringe, subculture. The gay rights movement has gained traction, and marriage equality is spreading in this country, but it’s time to start thinking outside the binary of male-female, gay-straight, and beyond the issue of marriage. 

There’s more to the equation, and so setting this play in modern times appealed to me because we could talk and think about this change that’s happening in our society. Specifically, setting the play amongst the younger generation appealed to me. I wasn’t around back then, so I could be wrong, but I get the impression that not long ago, people still thought homosexuality was a “phase” and gay young people would grow out of it (some people might still think this). It was only these young people grew into adulthood that society saw that it wasn’t a phase, it was here to stay. Nowadays, I hear people say the same thing about queer young people, who don’t prescribe to simple binaries. So I wanted to set the play amongst queer young people, who are still in that stage of establishing themselves, who haven’t yet had a chance to prove that it’s more than just a phase.

The other things that encouraged me to set the play in modern times, with modern young people, is because this play presents a particular view of romance that really resonates with me, as a modern 20-something year old. 

People are always talking about “the good old days” when dating consisted of courtship and roses brought to your door and fancy dinners and dancing. Older generations complain that young people today don’t know how to make face-to-face connections. We do this weird online dance of courtship—we stalk each others’ Facebooks, we use OkCupid and Grindr to find each other, we text instead of calling, we “hang out” and “hook up” instead of “dating.” 

But you look at the characters in this play, and they’re just as confused and afraid of connection as any Millennial. 

Orsino never once talks to Olivia in the entire play until the last scene; he sends a messenger instead. When Olivia falls in love with Cesario, she sends her own messenger to deliver a ring. It’s like the Shakespearean version of a flirty Snapchat. Toby and Maria get married out of nowhere (like a few people I could mention on my Facebook wall), Andrew is supposedly courting Olivia but never actually speaks to her (like a few people I could mention in my Facebook inbox). Malvolio is perhaps the only person in the play who is upfront and direct about his desires (he wants Olivia, and he’s not shy about it), but in doing so, he makes himself vulnerable. He gets bullied in a really violent, terrible way. 

Modern 20-something year-olds veil themselves behind these screens and go through life with a self-deprecating irony, not because we think it’s right, but because rejection is painful. Putting yourself out there is scary; you might become a Malvolio. I’m very sympathetic towards Malvolio, I think he’s braver than most of us.

Patch

How are the 21st century versions of the characters different from the Shakespearean versions?

Mariagrazia LaFauci

I tried to cast the play as gender-blind as possible. 

I asked every actor to think critically about the gender and sexuality of their character, even if they were men playing men and women playing women, and we’ve got a lot of different identities represented on stage. For instance, I have a woman playing Andrew (Krisha Maynard), and she does it with a sincerity and sympathy that I can’t see anyone else, male or female, bringing to that part. But even though she’s a woman, we didn’t change the pronouns to “she” and “her.” Andrew is still a “he” even though he’s being played by a woman. I had people ask Krisha and me, “Are you playing Andrew as a woman?” And our response was unanimous: don’t worry about it. Ask what Andrew wants, or fears, or how much he loves his best friend Toby, and we can tell you with no problem, but Andrew’s gender is harder to explain. 

It’s comforting to be able to look at someone and label them as male or female, but for that person, the answer can be very complex. Biologically, yes, our Andrew is definitely a woman, but he prefers to be referred to by male pronouns. He wears a mix of male and female clothes, and sexually he’s attracted to women. If it’s easier for you to call him a woman, or a lesbian, or butch, go right ahead, but we will ignore those kinds of labels and just play the heart of the character. 

The same goes for Feste, the clown, who is also being played by a very skilled actress (Sonya Richards). Feste is one of the only characters who winds up alone at the end (Shakespeare loves those endings with neatly married couples), and who seems totally content with that as an ending. So, we’ve interpreted Feste as being somewhat asexual, somewhat androgynous. For me, it was much less important finding a male or female Feste so much as finding a Feste who could be witty, spritely, and somewhat omniscient, and Sonya does that. I’m very lucky to have found actors who were so willing and able to rise to the occasion.

We also took an interest in the relationship between Antonio (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia) and Sebastian (Robert Slotnick). 

From the very first rehearsal, it was apparent to the entire cast that the relationship between these two is one of the most well developed in the entire play. Unlike nearly every other character in the show, Antonio openly declares his love for Sebastian and even willingly puts his life in danger for him, and yet he winds up alone at the end. He's a casualty of Shakespeare's neat little wedding package endings. Shakespeare wasn't very shy in the homosexual undertones there, and neither were we. It's actually bit of a sad story that tends to get lost amongst the chaos, but we wanted to dedicate time to telling that story in a way that was befitting of Antonio's generosity.

Patch

And, how is your show true to the traditional version?

Mariagrazia LaFauci

The play is by and large very true to the written material. 

We have obviously devoted a lot of time and energy to the language, because what’s the point of doing Shakespeare if not those beautiful words? Making meaning of the text has to be the highest priority for any production of Shakespeare, and we did a lot of work to that end. 

The cast is made up of people who are serious about Shakespearean performance, and it’s been at the center of my training in theatre as well, so you’ve got a large group of devotees who honor and value Shakespeare working on this show. That’s been a very good thing. We all know the text comes first. 

Also, the show is a comedy, and while there are a number of serious themes within it, we knew we had to keep the funny at the forefront. Sometimes Shakespeare’s comedy can be tough for a contemporary audience, so we’ve worked hard to make the jokes as fresh as possible. We spent a week on clowning exercises. The cast is hilarious; by the end of our clowning rehearsals, I’d be reaching for a respirator. This is also a play in which music plays a huge role, and we really wanted to make much of that. I mean, it begins with the words “If music be the food of love, play on,” and ends with a song, so music had to play an enormous role. We have a lot of talented musicians in the cast, and they get a chance to shine. Ryan Kendall, a great local musician, wrote some beautiful songs for us, and the cast worked on arranging a few more, and we added in a few pieces of music that were not in the script. 

Overall it’s going to be a night of music and dancing and revelry, which I think is just what Shakespeare would have wanted.

Another thing that I really wanted to honor was the open relationship that Shakespeare had with his audience. 

Shakespeare’s plays were performed in an open-air stage. There would be no curtain or dark house to make the audience feel like they were tucked away in some magical fantasyland where actors don’t exist and everything on stage is 100% real. Instead, the audience was acknowledged and visible, and made to feel like they were part of the happenings. 

We’ve tried to keep that relationship. We don’t have a curtain, our actors make use of the full space. The audience is never fully in the dark, and that’s intentional. We haven’t tried to “set” the play somewhere, which is to say, you won’t walk in and find a set and costumes that try to convince you that you are in a Japanese garden or a British countryside or a World War II barrack. The show is set in the Berlin Town Hall. Our set designer, Al Forgione, had done a phenomenal job with the design. He’s essentially built an actors’ playground, which extends the character and charm of the building onto the stage. The actors are actors, the audience is an audience. 

Throughout the whole thing, we are upfront about the fact that you are watching a funny play, put on by silly performers, in a beautiful little theater. It’s a very affable relationship; everyone is there to enjoy themselves, actors and audience alike. 

Also, as far as staying true to tradition, who could forget – this show was written to be performed in the days following Christmas! (We’re a little late for the Feast of the Epiphany, but we’re close!)

Patch

What are the leads like? What makes them right for their roles?

Mariagrazia LaFauci

I could talk all day about this cast, and it’s hard to say that there are really any leads because it is such a true ensemble show. Even the characters that at first glance seem secondary wind up being critical, and everyone has a huge amount of stage time. 

But I do want to talk about Anne Slotnick, who is playing Viola, because she is a truly tremendous and generous actor, and her character is really at the center of all the happenings in the play. 

Anne and I have had a number of conversations about Viola as a “strong female” character, because there have been a lot of critical readings of her. Many people dismiss Viola as not really being a “strong” character because she has certain lines where she seems to refuse to take action, most famously when she says, “Time, thou must untangle this not I/’Tis too hard a knot for me to untie!” 

Many people have said that Viola is passive and allows the action of the play to unravel around her, but Anne and I disagree. Anne has brought tremendous strength to this character who we both love. She has paid great respect to Viola’s resourcefulness, cunning, and selflessness, and has created a character who will go to great lengths to ensure her brother’s safe return, even if it means putting herself in a difficult situation. I have seen many a Viola played as passively waiting around for things to happen, but Anne’s Viola is clever enough to know the right time to take action. Her first duty is as a sister, and if she restrains herself from advancing the action with Orsino and Olivia, it’s only because she knows it’s the best way to hopefully get her brother back. She's holding out hope. 

Anne has created a deeply empathic character willing to go great lengths and make huge sacrifices for the people she cares about, which include Sebastian, Orsino, and Olivia. It’s especially powerful because Anne’s real life brother, Robert Slotnick, is playing Sebastian. Their reunion on stage is really touching, you can tell how much they actually care for each other.  And her relationship with Orsino (Quinton Kappel) is so fantastic. Orsino is another character who often gets spoken of in negative terms—people have called his character fickle, morose, and self-obsessed—but in the scenes between Quinton and Anne, you get to see this other side of Orsino as a confused, romantic soul who is deserving of love from a person like Viola, and who desperately needs the dose of reality she offers him.

If I start talking about anyone else I will go on and on talking about all of them, because they truly are a remarkable cast and they work so well together. Everyone has had a huge hand in making this show what it is. Get those people together in a room and the energy of that room is positively charged. It’s an amazing atmosphere to work in.

Patch 

And, what's your favorite part of the show?

Mariagrazia LaFauci

It’s so hard to say! Anytime the whole cast is on stage together, I get very excited. We have a few musical numbers that kill me every time. You can just see how much fun they’re having, and how much they’ve made it their own. 

Michelle Pasternak Leibowitz helped choreograph this incredible opening and some great fight scenes. I don’t want to give away too much, but the fight scenes are really hysterical and outside the ordinary. 

I’m also very partial to scene 1.5, which is the first scene between Viola (Anne Slotnick) and Olivia (Jen Drummond Morotto). Both of those actors are dynamite, so watching them face off is like watching a boxing match where you’re rooting for both people to win. 

I also love the scene when Malvolio (Jake Lewis) finds the letter written by Maria (Katie Speed) and reads it out loud, much to the delight of Fabian (Grant Jacoby), Toby (Nick Coccoma), and Andrew (Krisha Maynard). Everyone in that scene is hilarious. They came in with ideas for that scene and it went totally off the wall in a completely amazing way. They took it and ran with it, and even though I’ve seen it a million times, I’m always in a fit of giggles by the end. But then, the whole show is kind of like that.

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