UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance put on a rendition of “Twelfth Night,” a play from the bibliography of William Shakespeare, last weekend in the Center For the Arts’ Black Box Theatre.
Directed by Danielle Rosvally, a clinical assistant professor of theatre at UB, the show tells the story of separated twins Viola and Sebastian and their adventures.
But the play has a modern day context as well. Initially released by Shakespeare at the time of the Bubonic plague, the show is filled with many references to that pandemic. The performance of this plague-referencing show is anything but coincidental, according to Rosvally.
“When we were thinking through what we could perhaps offer to a student community of theater goers, the gift that I wanted to leave people with was just a moment of respite to laugh,” Rosvally said. “We haven’t been gathering in groups, but gathering in groups together to be relieved through laughter — I think that’s something very important and very human right now.”
Of course, the modern pandemic brought challenges to the performers as well, with a reinstatement of masks for the show propelled by both the “skyrocketed” infection rate in Erie County and their inability to request vaccination statuses.
“We had to unpack [in rehearsal] what it meant to act with a mask and how it would impact the performance,” Rosvally said. “And then as we started to understand what the specific challenges were, then we could start to develop a vocabulary attached with our bodies and voices for how to work through the added challenges that were presented to us.”
But Rosvally, even with such a tall hurdle to overcome, feels her cast succeeded with flying colors. She claims the cast and crew became more creative as a result of the circumstances.
“I mean, on the whole as an acting exercise, it’s actually quite wonderful because obstacles create creativity,” Rosvally said. “So just being asked to do something under extraordinary circumstances means we have to get more creative about how we do that. So we certainly had our creativity challenged [during production], and I think the result is quite spectacular.”
For cast members like Michael Busacco, a sophomore theatre performance major, the process of acting while wearing a mask required numerous creative techniques to ensure the right emotions were conveyed.
Busacco says he was forced to act with his eyes and eyebrows in an attempt to tell the story of his character.
“[The mask] makes it a little bit harder [for audiences] to hear a person on stage. So [I focused on] projecting along, making sure everything I say is louder than I would usually make it to the general audience to hear it,” Busacco said. “But also I feel anytime I wanted to get a visual point across the audience, I was acting a lot with my eyes and my eyebrows. Because if there’s any bit of facial recognition for an audience member, it’s going to draw them in more. So I did everything I could to give them what they could with the masks.”
For cast member Sydne Jackson, a senior theatre performance major, getting into the character of Olivia was a breath of fresh air. It allowed her to take a break from the more masculine characters she has portrayed in her collegiate acting career, such as Ocatvius from “Julius Caesar” and both Usher and God from “Everybody.”.
“Being able to play Olivia, who was very feminine, outwardly confident and pursuing who she loves, was something that I was very happy about and able to tap into being very feminine,” Jackson said.
The performance was Jackson’s final role as a UB student and first in-person production since fall 2019. She says the feeling was “bittersweet” but knows she’ll look back fondly on her time with the program and the creative freedom it granted her.
“I think it was a nice balance of having agency over my own career and making sure I got what I needed, but also getting support from the professors and the faculty and staff here during productions and in classes,” Jackson said.
Busacco found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, as “Twelfth Night” was his first time on the stage at UB. He lost his freshman year to the pandemic, so last weekend’s performance was particularly special. While very different from the high school productions he was used to, Busacco says this experience helped elevate his acting to the next level.
“Doing high school productions feels really cool. You’re like, ‘Oh, man, I’m on this stage. All my friends get to see me,’” Busacco said. “But when I’m in the college production, it feels like it’s a lot more of a big deal, and there’s a lot of effort that goes into it. The set design, the lighting design, everything is so well done, that I feel like I really get to be part of something big and awesome. It really amped me up, so I feel like I’m able to put on a much better performance.”
In order to embrace his role as Sir Toby Belch, a drunk, Busacco took elements from some iconic film roles to help get into the character, like Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura.
“Obviously, I put my own spin on it, just to not have it branded as that [other roles], but there was a lot of inspiration from those kind of crazy goofy characters that had interesting physicality and fun intonation,” Busacco said. “Everything they did got good laughs. So I really wanted it to be like that.”
Although the play is based on a text from over 400 years ago, Rosvally and her cast brought in many elements to give the play a greater sense of accessibility for a modern audience. Perhaps most notably, the group performed Whitney Houston’s single “I Want to Dance With Somebody” to close out the show.
Moriah Armstrong, a junior theatre performance major, said the musical number was one of her favorite moments with her fellow cast members.
“We not only got to bring our characters into it, we also got to bring a little bit of ourselves into it because that’s where we incorporated the final bow,” Armstrong said. “We got to work together with other members of the cast that we didn’t have any scenes with. As far as actually being in the show, that final bow, that final dance number is [the moment] everybody’s seen everybody’s performance and there’s just this recognition of like, ‘Hey, I see what you just did and I appreciate that.’ So that was my favorite part, hands down.”
But there were far more implementations of modern day elements than simply a song, ranging from the use of cell phones as props to costumes that incorporated bright colors, pumpkin pants and tutus, all of which The Bard himself would’ve found unfathomable. While some of these design choices were primarily meant for comedic effect, Rosvally’s main goal was to make the play more accessible for audience members.
One of the hardest parts of performing “Twelfth Night” was its genre: comedy. While the words of Shakespeare are hard to understand for some modern audiences, Armstrong emphasizes the importance of comedic timing and the difficulty of predicting successes before performing a Shakepearean comedy.
“Officially, you can’t just throw anybody into comedy and expect them to do an excellent job. It is something that you have to learn and understand and manipulate, especially with Shakespeare, because the language itself is so difficult,” Armstrong said. “Our audiences laughed in different places every single night. It was never the same show. The same jokes never landed the same way on different nights. The audience isn’t always understanding 100% of the words that you’re saying, [so] a lot of it becomes physical comedy.”
Rosvally says being “proud” of her cast would be an understatement. With all the adversity the actors, playwrights and production staff faced, the first live show at UB since 2019 was a feel-good moment for the entire theatre department.
“I would say they are the most resilient group of students I have ever worked with,” Rosvally said. “They are not just incredible actors and collaborators, but they’re also kind and wonderful people. So it’s been fantastic to work with this community.”
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Falter is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.