A strong cast and a bunch of balloons make the Guthrie’s 'Twelfth Night' a delight

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

Sometimes you step into view of the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage and immediately a striking set blows your mind. The scenic design for Twelfth Night is more likely to have you scratching your head. What is that ungainly agglomeration of boxy platforms? And why is it standing in a pool of water?

By the end of the show, though, you realize that every crazy corner of Naomi Dawson’s set is there to serve the storytelling. Twelfth Night is a long play full of outlandish episodes and madcap misunderstandings, and the deliberately abstract set allows the action to unfold both vertically and horizontally, making full use of the Guthrie’s most distinctive space.

For all the grandness of the surroundings, there’s an appealing coziness to director Tom Quaintance’s warm, amusing production. The all-local cast is uniformly strong, and most importantly, the actors (including veterans of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Children’s Theatre Company, and Ten Thousand Things) know how to work effectively in a comic ensemble.

The production is literally elemental, with both water and air coming into play through that peculiar pool and a series of balloons that multiply like tribbles as the play goes on. (A sign at the entrance warns of “popping latex balloons”—an appreciated advisory for some patrons and an arousing promise for others.) The water serves as both a set element and a prop: Actors walk through it, fall into it, and douse each other with it.

If there’s one word for the entire show, it’s playful. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most breezily enjoyable scripts, as audiences who caught last season’s engaging Orchard Theater Collective production were reminded. It’s not pure comedy, though. Emily Gunyou Halaas channels anguish as the disguised Viola, and in a movingly luminous final tableau, the actors trade places on an outsized swing.

Crediting this cast is like thanking people at the Oscars: You’re afraid to start naming names because you know you won’t be able to mention everyone. The actors who make the strongest impressions, though, are the ones who get to most use their comic chops. That includes Sun Mee Chomet, whose hilariously horny Olivia shows why she should get cast in comedies more often; Jim Lichtscheidl, born to play the preening but vulnerable Malvolio; and the extraordinary Joy Dolo, whose Sir Andrew, seemingly a minor character, just about steals this show.

Andrew’s a sidekick to Sir Toby, whose bloodstream is cut with both alcohol and irony. Toby’s also played by a female actor, none other than the storied Sally Wingert. She snaps right into place here, forming a delightful duo with Dolo in a bit of casting that helps to challenge the gender binary on which the plot ostensibly relies. That plot’s unchanged, but the play’s the thing, and this production is a pip.

Twelfth Night
Guthrie Theater         
818 S 2nd St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through March 22