EMU theater presents, "Twelfth Night," by William Shakespeare, Nov. 19-23, in the Lee Eshleman Studio Theater. This classic tale follows Viola, and later Sebastian, two twins separated by a violent storm at sea. To avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention when she arrives alone on the shore of romantic Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man. But the disguises don’t end there – and things get only compounded by mistaken identities, misplaced affections, and misguided attempts to set things right.

Upcoming production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is a richly carnivalesque comedy

The guiding concept behind Eastern Mennonite University’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is “drowning in excess,” says actress Makayla Baker. Fittingly, the performance begins with a shipwreck. Music, choreography, make-up and costumes inspired by carnivals and underwater dance create a visually and kinetically dynamic retelling of the play.

“It is richly comic and has dark undertones, which are rarely explored as fully as we are exploring in our production,” says Justin Poole, director and assistant professor, of his favorite Shakespearean work.

Twelfth Night” opens Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lee Eshleman Studio Theater and continues with nightly performances through Saturday, Nov. 22. Matinees are on Saturday, Nov. 22, and Sunday, Nov. 23 at 3 p.m.Twelfth Night-2_CalebSchlabach_Large

The story revolves around Viola, played by Rachelle Kratz. After the shipwreck, she is rescued on the shores of Illyria, thinking that her twin brother Sebastian (Jeremiah Hines) is dead. She disguises herself as a young man named Cesario, and enters the service of Duke Orsino (Sam Swartzendruber). The Duke believes he is in love with a woman named Olivia (Clara Bush), who falls for Viola’s masculine persona. Love triangles, pranks, and hilarity ensue.

“The language of Shakespeare is passion put to pen,” says Poole. “It takes all of an actor’s physical and mental capacity to play it well.”

Baker, who plays Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria, reads not only lines but personality from the script. “My biggest challenge has been finding the pockets where Shakespeare is telling me secrets about the way I should deliver my lines,” she says. “My character never speaks in iambic pentameter, which means that she is rough around the edges with her speech.”

Her acting process involves taking the script and a backstory she creates, and filing that away. “I keep my brain clear and my body becomes the storyteller for my character,” Baker says.

Swartzendruber humorously describes the month-long experience of learning the Duke’s part, “squinting at a page and having no idea what you’re yelling about,” struggling to heed Poole’s instructions to behave naturally, “because nothing about the situation is anywhere close to natural.”

In the end, though, embodying that foreign character for an audience is what keeps Swartzendruber in the theater. “It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced,” he says.Twelfth Night-3_CalebSchlabach_Large

Considering the complexities of the set, costumery and props, the technical crew working behind the scenes is multi-faceted. Assistant stage manager Mindy Esworthy calls herself a “jack of all trades during rehearsal.” On any given day, she’ll be taking notes or making props.

“Sometimes the writing [of Shakespeare] can be offputting, and people don’t see how truly creative it is,” says Esworthy. “I’m hoping that our interpretation of Twelfth Night will help show that creative side of the formal language.”

Creative interpretation is a driving force behind this production. An original score by local composer James E. (Jim) Clemens, who has collaborated with EMU musicians in the past, is a highlight, says Poole.

Swartendruber suggests that audience members familiarize themselves with the plot beforehand to better appreciate the show.

“Justin’s directing always twists things in different ways to kill any preconceived ideas people have about the way things are going to turn out,” he says.

Despite its complexity, playgoers should expect anything but stodginess in what Baker calls “the Moulin Rouge version of Twelfth Night.”

Tickets are available at the EMU Box Office in University Commons weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Costs are adult ($12), senior 65 + ($9), youth up to age 18 ($9), EMU student ($5), and EMU faculty/staff ($9). The Thursday evening performance is “pay what you will” for EMU faculty and staff to benefit the EMU theater scholarship fund.


Wednesday, November 19, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, November 20, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, November 21, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 22, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, November 23, 3 p.m.