Rebecca Taichman’s Ever-Evolving Relationship with Twelfth Night

An interview by guest writer Evan Henerson

When the subject is Shakespeare’s bittersweet comedy Twelfth Night, the metaphors and analogies come easily to director Rebecca Taichman, who uses words like “epic,” “complex,” “Mozartian” and “perfect.”

“It’s truly bottomless,” she says. “I thought I knew everything about the play, and I just keep unpeeling layers.”

Rebecca Taichman directs The Old Globe's 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, June 21 - July 26, 2015. Photo by Jim Cox.

She speaks from the experience of having already de-onioned quite a bit of the shenanigans of Viola, Orsino, Olivia and company. The production that opens this weekend to kick off the Old Globe’s 2015 Summer Shakespeare Festival is Taichman’s second go-round following a 2009 production at Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC which subsequently moved to the McCarter Theatre. Going back even further, Taichman played Viola as an undergraduate in a production at McGill University while still, in her words, “a pup.” Taichman, who had acting aspirations before turning to directing, does not give her rendition of Viola glowing reviews. “My memory of the experience is that I didn’t understand the play at all,” she says.

The 2009 production, on the other hand, took home glowing notices for both its performances and for its visual palate. The Old Globe opportunity came about after she was approached by the company’s Artistic Director Barry Edelstein who had seen the Shakespeare Theatre/McCarter production and inquired if Taichman was up for reimagining it for an outdoor staging at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

Taichman was eager to reexamine and reconnect. “I think there’s a similar heart and it’s told from a similar point of view (as the previous production),” she says, “but it’s also extremely different. The first step was a conversation with the design team on how we could make what we did better and really maximize the outdoor space.” 

Rutina Wesley as Viola and Sara Topham as Olivia

Rutina Wesley as Viola and Sara Topham as Olivia

As magical as the Festival Theatre may be – complete with occasional vocal contributions from the inhabitants of the neighboring San Diego Zoo – there were certain elements that could not be replicated. Where indoors, she had showered the stage with 60,000 rose petals at the end of the first half, a similar image would have been difficult to pull off in Balboa Park.

“We debated whether we could get a drone to drop them,” she says laughing, “but that would have been the only way.”

Replication was not the aim anyway. Apart from scenic designer Ricardo Hernandez and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, the entire crew and the cast are completely different from the last go-round. And this was entirely by design.

“These new actors have taught me a lot about the characters in ways I hadn’t thought of before,” she says. “I was thinking of it, in a way, like a former lover who I had really loved. But that last production was 6 or 7 years ago, and you’re with this new lover, and you need to really see the new lover for what it is, and not try to see that past relationship.”

The metaphor of falling in love from a new perspective seems particularly apt given the players involved: shipwrecked Viola who disguises herself as the boy Cesario to serve Duke Orsino of Illyria. Charged with wooing the Countess Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, the disguised Viola causes Olivia to fall in love with her, a circumstance complicated by the fact that she, Viola, has fallen in love with Orsino.

Equally love-crossed are the puritanical steward Malvolio who is tricked into believing Olivia is in love with him; Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch and her maid Maria, the doltish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who also is in love with Olivia) and Viola’s twin brother Sebastian. The musically inclined fool Feste may occasionally sing of love, but he’s one of the play’s few central characters who exists outside the complications of Cupid’s arrows.

“In this swirling madness that surrounds him, Feste is the one character who sort of sees things as they are,” says Manoel Felciano who plays the role. “Rebecca likes to talk about how the play contains opposites and the opposites butt right up against each other. I think in a lot of ways, Feste wants to kind of open people’s eyes to that, to the fact that life is not either/or, it is either/and.”

L=R: Daniel Petzold ) Fabian_, Amy Aquino (Maria), and Manoel Felciano (Feste)

L-R: Daniel Petzold (Fabian), Amy Aquino (Maria), and Manoel Felciano (Feste)

In addition to Felciano, Taichman’s company is replete with Bard veterans including Robert Joy, Tom McGowan, Amy Aquino, Rutina Wesley, Patrick Kerr, LeRoy McClain, Terence Archie and Daniel Petzold.

“This is nobody’s first barbecue,” says Felciano. “They have a lot of experience and are passionate about the play and the journey of their individual characters. So is Rebecca. When you have a surfeit of ideas about the way something could go, I think everybody benefits from that.”

Taichman is not the only one who is having a second time around “romance” with Twelfth Night. Sara Topham returns to Olivia four years after playing the role for director Des McAnuff at the Stratford Festival where she is a company regular. Although she concedes that, like Taichman, she has memories of the past production to “shed,” to a certain extent the role is now Topham’s blood stream.

“There’s a whole new kind of Alice in Wonderful rabbit hole of freedom that comes from knowing the words are just there. I don’t know how to describe it. They’re there,” says Topham. “You open your mouth and the right words come out. I know what Olivia intends when she gets up in the morning. So then I can feel comfortable and I can afford to be buffeted around by everybody that Olivia encounters who completely change her world.”

L-R: Tom McGowan as Sir Toby Belch and Patrick Kerr as Andrew Aguecheek

Tom McGowan (Sir Toby Belch) and Patrick Kerr (Andrew Aguecheek)

Certain vestiges are not so easily shed. In the 2011 Stratford production, the scene in which gulled and yellow stocking-wearing Malvolio woos Olivia was played on a tennis court, complete with a net and props to match. Four years later, Topham speaks those same lines on a largely bare stage. During early rehearsals, while playing out the scene, she found herself clenching her fist as though clutching a tennis racket.

“In a way, that was quite a tricky thing to find because it was so different and my body had this memory of doing a lot of running around and jumping over things,” Topham said. “So it felt like I wasn’t ‘acting’ hard enough, and I had to keep saying to myself, ‘No, no. It’s OK. Wait and see what happens when he comes toward you.”

“It’s like old music or like riding a bike or when you go back to the house you lived in in your childhood,” Topham continues. “You remember how many stairs there were. That lives in your body, but you sort of have an amnesia. So you take the amnesia and figure out what it is now.”

Although she is not re-inhabiting a role, Taichman was asked about the 19 year old version of herself who took Viola’s journey, the one who had not yet had her heart deeply broken to understand it.

“I sort of have envy for that girl,” the director says. “What a wonderful gift to have that innocence. I don’t have it anymore. I don’t think I could have directed the play back then. But for that young person to be able to glimpse into the future, and for this person now to be able to go back, it’s a fascinating, long-term ever-evolving relationship I have with the play. It’s interesting.”

Twelfth Night runs through July 26, 2015 in the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre at The Old Globe in San Diego, 1363 Old Globe Way. Tickets: (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or

All photos by Jim Cox


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