Review: Roaring ’20s spin on classic Shakesperean comedy entertains and amuses audience

Gavin Libbey, Author

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Palo Alto High School’s Theatre program’s second fall show of the year brings audiences to 1920s Hollywood in its adaptation of the the classic Shakespearean comedy, “Twelfth Night.” The show premiered on Friday and delivered all the humor and amusement a Shakespearean comedy promises.

The story of Paly’s adaption of “Twelfth Night” is the same as the original, except for a few role changes. For example, lords are turned into movie directors and knights are replaced with actors.  Twins Viola (senior Sarah Olson) and Sebastian (senior Jonathan Mackris) are shipwrecked and separated in Hollywoodland. Viola decides to disguise herself as a male actor by the name Ceasario and finds employment under a movie director, Duke Orsino (Winston Wang). An awkward love triangle emerges when Orsino commands Viola to woo his love, Countess Olivia (senior Paige Esterly) on his behalf.  Olivia then falls in love with “Ceasario,” and Viola falls in love with Orsino.

The show also features an amusing subplot. The court of Countess Olivia play tricks on her strict, prideful assistant Malvolio (senior Aaron Slipper). They forge a letter and fool him into believing Olivia is in love with him, convincing him into doing absurd things to show his affection to her.

The performers all seem like they really knew who they are playing, and how they would act when faced with the twists and turns of the plot. For example, Viola never seems to face a person for an extended period of time, always hides her hands and avoids any physical contact, because any of those things could blow her cover. The changes in the characters as the play progresses are also well done. It’s clear that love affects the characters, whether it’s falling in love with someone, or someone falling in love with them.

Slipper is outstanding as Malvolio. Every scene he’s in is pure entertainment. While his subplot may feel detached from the main story, his performance makes it easily worth witnessing. The scenes where he emerges onto the stage wearing his bright yellow sweater and stockings, and when he’s fuming at his “nemesis” Sir Toby Belch (Guive Assadi) in his pajamas are both highlights from the show.

It feels like everyone has something to offer. The jester character Feste in the original play is split into the four Marx Brothers in Paly’s adaptation. Splitting one speaking character into three (the fourth Marx Brother Harpo is mute) may seem  like a risky move, but the way the lines are split makes all four characters feel alive and relevant to the story in different ways. Even all the unnamed singers and dancers feel important; when they’re not setting the mood with song or dance, they make the movie set scenes feel more alive.

The show isn’t as set-intensive as some past Paly shows have been, like last years’ “Into the Woods” or “Noises Off,” with its huge stage-upon-a-stage set piece. There’s only one background, a static elevated platform in the back of all the scenes, and only a few furniture alterations between scenes. Despite its simplicity, the design works because, in true Shakespearean fashion, the actors and dialogue are the stars of the show, not the setting and visuals.

The visuals, however, are not entirely basic. For the intro, the tech team projected a filmed video filtered in black and white to provide exposition under the guise of a newscast. It feels a little silly to see shots of video clips from 1920s edited in next to shots of the tech team pretending to be shipbuilders, aimlessly hammering wooden planks, but that is probably the point. Lighting is also used well. For most of the show, the stage is bathed in light that makes the sets feel golden, fitting of the Hollywood theme. Also, before the video intro, there’s a short scene where the ship crashes, and the theater is drowned in swirling, darkening blue light.

“Twelfth Night” is as impressive as it is hilarious. Between the entertaining performers, the slight alterations in the setting and script that make it feel more interesing and the overall tone and look of the show, it simply delivers. Shakespearean comedies aren’t always this comedic, so you should see it while you still can.

“Twelfth Night” has two more shows this weekend, on Friday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 9, both starting at 7:30 p.m..