Love is complicated in ‘Twelfth Night’

The musical was a hit on stage at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center.


Love was in the air … actually, it was all over the stage, in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s splendid contemporary musical rendition of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by British actor-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, with a buoyant score by American singer-composer Shaina Taub. The flawless, endlessly funny, touching, gender-bending production had us grinning from the opening number until the last, perhaps vying only with the cast for who was having the best time.

Some 20 students, all singing and dancing with infectious commitment and finesse, took us through the circuitous story of mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and complicated love triangles (or actually quadrangles or more, since so many characters seemed to be falling for someone who was pining for another). It all takes place in the imaginary land of Illyria, where the young woman Viola (Gabi Silveira) comes after she is separated from her twin Sebastian (Zyler Flanders) after a shipwreck. To better navigate the world, Viola disguises herself as a boy named Cesario, and goes to work for Duke Orsino (Samuel Hines). She falls for him even as he sends her to unwillingly try to woo Countess Olivia (Emma Burt), who spurns the duke’s advances but promptly falls for Viola/Cesario. Meanwhile, those attached to the countess plot to expose the self-aggrandizing aspirations of her steward, Malvolio (Aiden Weiland). These include her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Jack Tully); servant, Maria (Alex Turner); and Sir Toby’s friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Huck Moore). To make matters more complicated, Sir Andrew also happens to be seeking the countess’ hand. After many twists and turns, Sebastian turns up, causing a flood of mistaken identity. Eventually, the confusion all amusingly unravels, and suffice it to say that there are plenty of happy couples at the end.

Director Brooke Hardman Ditchfield worked with the students since the start of the school year. As always, she selected the show based on where the students, who are seniors, are in their learning process, and what’s going to stretch but still be a really great fit for them. “For a lot of months, we had been tossing around more mainstream musical titles, and none of them felt right. Then I remembered this adaptation, revisited it, and thought, ‘I think this is perfect.’ Despite its 420-year-old age, the play speaks to many current issues that our young people face every day.”

Indeed, “Twelfth Night” hits a good many of them — What does it mean to truly be yourself, to be vulnerable in front of somebody you really care about, to conceal your identity and carry that burden? “What I love about doing Shakespeare with this age group is that although the themes are very old, they are also very human, and for our young people, those feelings are very close to the surface in their daily lives,” Ditchfield says.

While the music is contemporary, the dialogue, albeit edited down, is Shakespeare’s, and it came trippingly off students’ tongues, which is quite the feat. Although there was, initially, trepidation around the language, Ditchfield said, “I feel like, after I get to do my Shakespearean classes, their fear is gone. Once they learn about the meter, why it’s written in that meter, what the words mean, and the clues Shakespeare has left within the language, it unlocks it for them, and they start to understand and embody it.”

The process started in September, with students signing up for a class called “The Musical,” which began with Ditchfield and Abigail Chandler teaching vocal technique. The students also underwent an audition intensive, and then began the rehearsal process in late October. At the same time, there was a concurrent production class for those students interested in run crew, lighting, and set design.

However, “Twelfth Night” certainly took a village. In addition to the almost 50 high school students that made up the cast, orchestra, and run, tech, and design crew were faculty and community members, mentors, parents, guardians, siblings, and local businesses, ballooning involvement to nearly 100 people who had a hand in bringing the musical to life.

The appealingly festive scenery with an ivy-covered porch looking out on a courtyard, which perplexingly included a Porta Potty crucial to one of the latter scenes, had more than a whiff of New Orleans. It was developed by the students, who were mentored by Mac Young, along with help from Brad Austin, and perfectly complemented the Mardi Gras–inflected costumes and Ken Romero’s Broadway razzle-dazzle choreography.

By the end of the performance, the audience couldn’t contain their enthusiasm, and we were on our feet for the last number that superbly capped the evening, as the cast flooded the stage singing: “If we could see through the eyes of another. Hear through the ears of somebody else. If we open our hearts to each other’s beat, what a better world it could be.”

Ditchfield reflects, “It’s like every message a teacher, parent, community member, or human on this earth wants to embody. I think that’s what the performing arts stand for. We come together to be reminded that we are empathetic, kind beings who just want a sense of belonging and joy.” And that, indeed, was what the night was all about.