Even if you’re not familiar with the plot or characters of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” you likely recognize its oft-quoted opening line: “If music be the food of love, play on.”
It’s one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies and perhaps his most musical, and the upcoming Modern Theater Spokane production of “Twelfth Night” embraces that. This interpretation, directed by Jeff Sanders, is defined by a rock ’n’ roll vibe, and it features an original score composed by the Modern’s music director Zach Baker.
“Above any other Shakespeare play, music factors the most into this one,” Sanders said. “So we rolled with it, and we went with images of rock icons a little bit. Sir Toby has a flair of Meat Loaf to him, Maria has a bit of a Stevie Nicks look, and Orsino is vaguely reminiscent of Sting. It just seemed to fit the play like a glove.”
The plot of “Twelfth Night” follows the trajectory of a traditional Shakespearean farce, which means it’s filled with enough doomed affairs, mistaken identities and romances torn asunder to satisfy a soap opera fan. But it’s also playful and self-reflective, and like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, it slyly comments on the theatrical customs of its time.
“It’s a messy play with a bunch of broken hearts all over the place,” Sanders said. “It’s funny, don’t get me wrong, but everyone’s got so much baggage. … Every one of these characters is in love with something or someone they really shouldn’t be in love with, but they can’t help themselves. It all falls into place by the end, as all Shakespeare comedies do, but the characters have to wrestle with it.”
This version of “Twelfth Night” is a co-production between the Modern and Eastern Washington University, and the cast features a mix of EWU theater students and professional local actors. Sanders, who also works in the theater department at EWU, had never before tackled this show, which gave him free rein to repackage it.
“This one has a whole refreshing newness to me,” Sanders said. “I’ve seen it onstage and I’ve read it, but I’ve never danced with it myself. I had no real way of thinking about how it should be done, so it’s been kind of a cool adventure.”
The best Shakespeare works still resonate with 21st-century audiences, and Sanders said “Twelfth Night” certainly does that: It boasts a surprisingly modern view of love, he said, and that its themes of identity and social status are progressive for a 400-year-old play.
“It’s about how you fall in love with a person’s essence and their spirit, not their class or their gender,” he said. “I find it very contemporary. Considering the summer and all the things happening with legalization of gay marriage and how we view transgender people. So to me the play felt very now.”