Respun Shakespeare's play captures silent film era

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 10:27 a.m. CDT; updated 12:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 23, 2009
Brett Johnson, director, left, guides the actor's into their positions on the stage as they rehearse Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Ryhnsburger theater on April 8.

COLUMBIA — MU director Brett D. Johnson thinks the plays of Shakespeare are robust enough to handle reinterpretation, and he has re-imagined "Twelfth Night Or, What You Will" for a new production by the department of theatre.

“I’m trying to re-imagine the play for a contemporary audience," Johnson said. "I want them to be able to look at Shakespeare's comedy in a different way.”

If You Go

What: "Twelfth Night Or, What You Will," by the MU department of theatre

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and April 30 through May 2; 2 p.m. May 3

Admission: $12 general, $10 faculty and staff, $8 students and seniors. Call the box office for tickets at 882-7529 or go online at

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He has taken a meta-theatrical approach — that is, the use of theater as a metaphor for life — to the direction of "Twelfth Night," which begins Thursday. The characters on stage play archetypal figures from the era of silent film.

“I chose actors from the silent film era who crafted on-screen personas that resemble the characters found in 'Twelfth Night,'” Johnson said. For example, Orsino, the Duke of Illyria in "Twelfth Night," is Rudolph Valentino as he appeared in the classic "Son of the Sheik."

Johnson said that in Shakespeare’s play, Orsino becomes trapped in the role of a lover who is narcissistic and immobilized by his vision of true love. Similar to Orsino’s character, Valentino was inextricably linked to his image as "The Great Lover." "Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen," he was reported to have said. "I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams.”  

Other "Twelfth Night" re-imaginings include Malvolio as Lon Chaney, Olivia as Louise Brooks, Sir Toby as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Feste as Charlie Chaplin. 

For audience members unfamiliar with silent film stars and stories, lobby displays and program notes will help fill in the context. Johnson hopes the production will work on a few levels.  

“Audience members who see the parallels between the two will have additional layers to contemplate," Johnson said. "Lovers of Shakespeare can hear his beautifully crafted story and poetry, and everyone can enjoy the physical humor, the music and the dancing."

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