Helmed by Director Kristina McCloskey and Associate Director Stephanie Mattos, Midsommer Flight’s Twelfth Night transforms the four lush showrooms of the Lincoln Park Conservatory into the land of Illyria, a world populated by guitar-strumming jesters, sword fighting pirates, foiled lovers, and capering drunks. This queer-af adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies invites the audience to sing along to sea shanties, share asides with actors, and walk from room to room to explore as many as three simultaneously occurring plots.
A typical summary of Twelfth Night might go something like this: Viola, shipwrecked noblewoman, disguises herself as a man after being stranded in Illyria and separated from her identical twin Sebastian. However, the plot each audience member experiences will vary wildly depending on which of the simultaneously occurring scenes they end up watching. As director McCloskey says, “Audiences can enjoy the wide range of experiences as the characters would live them, meaning they will only have the perspectives of the characters they are following. Plots, secrets, and surprises will run amok — until the final scene when all is revealed and resolved.” I, for one, spent most of my time following the booze-soaked revels of side-character Sir Toby Belch (Grant Brown) and his clueless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Lexy Hope Weixel).
Everything, from the friendliness of the actors to the play’s DIY aesthetic, creates a welcoming environment which makes the production’s material and novel concept accessible. The cast steers away from overindulgently delivered verse and speaks Shakespeare’s words with the comfortable, casual cadences of 21st century English—even ad-libbing conversations with audience members as we walked from room to room. The actors wear vibrantly-colored outfits, many of them made up of layered items which would seem at home in a thrift store haul. All of the music and sound effects are created in-house by crew or cast, who sometimes recruit the help of the audience-members to sing along. A special shout out goes to actor-musicians Izis Mollinedo (guitar/Feste) and Grant Brown (drums/Sir Toby) who provide most of the accompaniment for the show.
That being said, the flip side of experiencing the play from the perspective of the characters is just that: like the characters, you may not figure out what’s going on until the reveal in the final scene. For people unfamiliar with the play, the plot may be hard to piece together. I attended the show with a friend who knew nothing about Twelfth Night, who struggled to understand the overall story—even during the final reveal. Instead, she appreciated the performance as a patchwork of scenes, singing along to the music, sharing asides with the actors, and admiring the conservatory itself.
To be fair, Midsommer Flight makes an effort to give the audience some context. Before the show, the ensemble introduces themselves and their characters, and pantomimes the shipwreck. However, this introduction is staged along a long, winding path, with actors and audiences in two parallel lines. If you are stuck on one of the far fringes of the corridor as we were, it will be impossible to see the actors during this crucial moment. Frankly, if this is your first time watching 12th Night and disorientation isn’t your bag, there’s a simple solution: just read a plot summary of Twelfth Night before watching the show.
By far, though, the most understated and brilliant part of the production is the radical way it addresses gender. With a woman disguised as a man as the beating heart of its romantic plot, Twelfth Night is probably one of Shakespeare’s queerest scripts to begin with. And Midsommer Flight’s production takes this several glorious steps further. To begin with, the production features a talented cast made up of mostly queer and nonbinary actors of various gender presentations. Beyond mere casting, the production deliberately alters the pronouns and genders of the characters themselves. Deceived Malvolio is now a “she,” and shipwrecked Sebastian is now a “they.”
When the audience is shipwrecked in Illyria alongside Viola and Sebastian, they are arriving in a post-gender world. Between Shakespeare’s gender bending plot, the actors’ varied gender presentations, and Midsommer Flight’s choice to change the pronouns of characters, gender—once a crucial part of the script—becomes too difficult to follow. Rather than being able to watch a play about mistaken gender, the audience is forced to think about Twelfth Night as a play about mistaken identity.
With its vibrant, immersive production, Midsommer Flight does more than just breathe life into a script: it breathes life into a city. The production removes the literal and figurative distance between Shaksespeare’s characters and the audience, filling all four showrooms of the Lincoln Park conservatory with camaraderie, laughter, and music. As the Chicago days get colder, the ensemble-driven production is a one-way ticket to sunny, verdant Illyria, where the plants are always green, the locals are always welcoming, and the streets are always filled with music.
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Kristen Alesia — Ensemble
Grant Brown – Sir Toby Belch
Polley Cooney – Orsino
Sonia Goldberg – Malvolio
Jillian Leff – Ensemble
Amy Malcolm – Olivia
Kathleen Mitchell – Antonio
Izis Mollinedo – Feste
Audrey Napoli – Sebastian
Tatiana Pavela – Maria
John Payne – Viola
Lexy Hope Weixel – Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Kristina McCloskey – Director
Stephanie Mattos – Associate Director
Hannah Beehler – Stage Manager
Amy Rappa – Assistant Stage Manager
Jacob Shaffer – Assistant Stage Manager
Nina D’Angier – Scenic and Props Designer
Meredith Ernst – Text Coach
Cindy Moon – Costume Designer
Jyreika Guest – Intimacy Director
Ben F. Locke – Casting Director
Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography – Production Photography
John Morrison – Graphic Designer
Elizabeth Rentfro – Music Director
Dylan S. Roberts – Covid-19 Safety Officer
Thomas Russell – Fight Director
John Olson – Press Relations
Beth Wolf – Producing Artistic Director
Photo Credit: Tom McGrath