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The Dangers of Brittle Orthodoxy

Intentionally different. Entirely ArtsEmerson.”



If you’ve been following along this year, you’ll recognize that locution. We have been using it to describe the entire season, to let you know that what you will find here is an experience carefully curated to carry you into the theatrical terrain of discovery, imagination, and artistic innovation.  Even when we are bringing you classic works, like Twelfth Night, we are drawn to an approach that upends the rules to animate a text many of us know well and make us consider it anew. You’ll sometimes hear us talk of these events in our seasons as “classics with a twist.” This is why we’ve brought you Filter, a theatre company known for its expertise in creating surprising and delightful interpretations of classic texts.




How appropriate that a Twelfth Night should subvert convention as completely and merrily as Filter does. It is, after all, a play in which all the rules of polite society are intentionally and entirely undone. That is basically the whole plot. The Duke here is a hopeless and helpless romantic. Not an obsequious villain or a paranoid climber or a rule-bound dispenser of heartless justice, as so many other men of similar station are in Shakespeare’s plays. He’s soft, sentimental, undone by beauty—as like to weep at a lilting tune, a well-turned leg, a pretty face. The Duke and the Countess both fall hard for Viola in a cross-dressed mix up that delights for having doubled down on the gender confusion. But look again and it’s also doubled down on class confusion. Both royals have fallen for the errand boy.



Sir Toby is another creature of subversion. He seems to have never met a social norm he didn’t feel exempt from. An unrepentant drunk, publicly and privately randy, committed to havoc, allergic to order, even his name is an affront to puritanical politesse. And in Sir Andrew, Shakespeare has allowed himself full rein to make sport of the gentry of the day.



It’s the puritan Malvolio that most captures my attention though, as we sit here together in Boston watching this antic, unruly play and company. Poor Malvolio. A hidebound pedant, so certain of the order of things and proud of his place in it, that he cannot conceive of the mischief that is being perpetrated on him. The world works in precisely one way. He’s mastered that way. And he’s climbed to a place of some authority and centrality within the bureaucracy as a result. He is now order’s officious enforcer. He’s so focused on how things are done, he’s lost any capacity to imagine the realms beyond, from whence comes his undoing. And, when he comes face to face with his mistake, rather than enter the spirit of the moment, rather than expand his limits or soften his edges, rather than grow, he storms out of the play with a malevolent curse. He will be revenged on the whole pack of us.



Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the dangers of brittle orthodoxy, and in Twelfth Night he’s delivered a comeuppance to its disciples in the form of a safe and pleasing little comedy. In the hands of the rascals of Filter Theatre, the message is doubled: cleave to your rules at your own peril. Nimbleness, humor, resilience, generosity, love—these traits win the day. Happily, these are the qualities most in evidence in the ArtsEmerson audience. We celebrate your adventurous spirit, and endeavor to foster that in every piece we offer. Music may be the food of love, but discovery is the food of life. So, play on!


– David Dower, Co-Artistic Director, ArtsEmerson

Twelfth Night – DEC 20 – 30, 2016


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