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Why The Actors Playing Shakespeare's Women In 'Twelfth Night' Admire Their Characters

Julie Denesha

For this year's production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has set the play in the Roaring Twenties.

Its three female characters represent distinctly different approaches to the gender politics of Shakespeare's time, so KCUR asked the actors for their thoughts on the characters of Viola, Olivia, and Maria.

Actor: Bree Elrod
Character: Viola

Viola is the play's leading lady, who is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Believing her twin brother Sebastian has drowned, Viola asks her rescuer, a ship’s captain, to disguise her as a man so she can serve the local nobleman, Duke Orsino.

“She immediately she searches for a way to survive and take care of herself,” Elrod says. “She doesn't sit in her sorrow, or rely on someone else to tend to her needs. She hatches a plan, and even in the face of great sadness and pain, she makes it happen.”

But, Elrod says, she doesn’t believe Viola deliberately sets out to defy gender stereotypes.

“Viola dresses as a man as an act of survival. She is doing what she needs to do until she can figure out what she needs and wants to happen next.”

Elroy says she couldn’t help but admire Viola’s resolve.

“What surprised me most is the volume of Viola's tenacity and commitment. There are so many moments in which she could easily just say, ‘Ok, this is getting reeeeeeaaaallly complicated. Before this goes any further, guess what — I'm a woman!’ But she doesn't. Viola continues to be Cesario, even after knowing Olivia is in love with her, after being challenged to a fight with a fierce competitor, and after her deep and profound love for Orsino has become nearly unbearable.”

Actor: Vanessa Severo
Character: Olivia


Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Vanessa Severo (Olivia) chooses her own path in love.

Olivia is an Illyrian countess of some fortune who mourns the recent death of her father and brother. Duke Orsino has declared his love for her, but she rejects his advances.

Severo says this independence of thought in a female character would have been unconventional for audiences when Twelfth Night premiered around 1601-1602.

“Olivia isn't swayed by status. She chooses not to marry Orsino, wherein typically women were made to marry the man chosen for them.”

Actor: Cinnamon Schultz
Character: Maria

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
With a few tricks up her sleeve, Cinnamon Schultz plays Olivia's handmaid Maria.

Maria is Olivia's handmaid, a boisterous counterpoint to the other two women.

Despite the fact she is a servant, Schultz says, Maria is no pushover. And she manages to orchestrate a few jokes along the way, such as convincing a fellow servant that Lady Olivia is secretly in love with him.

“Maria really doesn't have much power, so she tries to use persuasion quite a bit throughout the play.”

Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, presented by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, 8 p.m., June 14-July 3 at Southmoreland Park (signed performances for the hard of hearing will be Wednesday, June 22 and Sunday, June 26). Festival admission is donation only.  

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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