Pranks and passion in the park

Woodward Shakespeare Festival kicks off its season Thursday with Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ directed by Jacob Sherwood

THEATER PREVIEW

All you need is love in “Twelfth Night,” one of Shakespeare’s most adored comic romps. For Jacob Sherwood, director of the new Woodward Shakespeare Festival production, his adoration of the play comes in many forms: love of the text, love of the themes, and love of the mistaken identities, pranks and mischief. And, best of all, love of his wife, whom he cast in the show in a key role.

“During rehearsals she sees me only as a director and not a husband,” he says of Sarah. “She’s even teased me for flirting with her during rehearsals!”

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Gender bending: Renee Newlove as Viola and Kristel Kranz as Olivia in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of ‘Twelfth Night.’ Photos / Emily Harley

I caught up with Sherwood to talk about the production, which opens Thursday, June 15, and runs Thursdays-Saturdays through July 8.

Q: For those who aren’t familiar with the plot of “Twelfth Night,” give us a brief synopsis.

A: The plot moves rather quickly as we follow two main storylines. The first is the story of a shipwrecked twin, Viola, who disguises herself as a boy and serves the local Duke, falls in love with him but must complete all instructions he gives her, which includes convincing the local countess, Olivia, to marry the duke. Quite the internal conflict. Not to mention the confusion when Viola’s identical twin brother strolls into town. Our second story is that Olivia’s uncle teaming up with Olivia’s chamber maid and deciding to pull the prank of all pranks on the head servant (and rather rude fellow), Malvolio, all the while falling in love with each other during the process.

Q: What is the time period and setting?

A: I always enjoy seeing Shakespeare done in a modern time, and as such this production will be taking place in the modern era.

Q: Last season you directed a version of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with two women (instead of men) in the leading roles. And the season before, you were assistant director of a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that had a mostly women cast. And now you’re doing “Twelfth Night,” which is known for its strong women characters. Is there a pattern here?

‘Twelfth Night,’ 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through July 8, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park. General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.

A: I have been fortunate in my life to always be surrounded by strong women. My mother, sister, and wife are just three examples of strong women who have influenced me over the years. The more I direct and study Shakespeare the more I feel that his female roles are quite strong and when I change the gender of some of the male roles, it brings a wonderful impact to a modern audience who is used to seeing things only one way. With “Twelfth Night” I truly feel that the play showcases just how strong and powerful the love a woman can have for another truly is. In my experience there is nothing quite as powerful as the love a mother has for her children, a sister has for her brothers, or a wife for the one she chooses to marry. It is humbling to see this passion and comforting to feel its power.

Q: With that in mind, talk a little about the three main female roles: Olivia the Countess, Maria her saucy maid, and Viola, the woman who is disguised as a man to serve the Duke. Who plays each one, and what does each bring to the role?

A: Olivia is more than just a countess, she is a sister who is mourning over the recent death of her brother and a daughter still in mourning over the only less recent death of her father. It is only when she starts to love again does color return to her world. She is passionate, powerful, and independent. Kristel Kranz is playing Olivia and she brings an incredible feeling of honesty to the role; one that will have the audience falling in love with her every time she is on stage.

Maria, Olivia’s chamber maid, is also Olivia best friend. She is Olivia’s confidant, her protector, and she is brilliant. She manipulates, plans, and executes a devious plot that works to perfection in order to take someone high and mighty, and humble them. Her brilliance and beauty are rivaled only by her love for Olivia, and her love for Sir Toby (Olivia’s Uncle). Sarah Sherwood is Maria; she brings so much life and energy to the role. Sarah has a knack for being coy and flirty on stage that will leave the audience wanting more.

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Maid with an attitude: Sarah Sherwood plays Maria in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of ‘Twelfth Night.’

Viola is a very interesting character. Having just lost her brother and finding herself in a foreign land, she disguises herself as a man and hides in plain site as the servant to the Duke. She is pulled by her love for him into two very different directions. On one hand she wants him to be happy and that may mean helping him marry the Countess, on the other hand she wants to be the one that brings him happiness and be his bride. Her passion and sense of duty and loyalty make for an interesting discussion about how much do we sacrifice for the ones we love. Truly an incredibly selfless person. Renee Newlove is my Viola. Her brilliant acting shows that internal conflict that Viola, and a lot of women, go through on their journey to find love.

Q: We live in an era of what some would call a more fluid attitude toward gender identity than in the 16th century. Then again, it was common for young men in Shakespeare’s time to play the female roles. What is your take on the gender theme in “Twelfth Night”?

A: In Shakespeare’s time the idea of a woman wearing pants to disguise herself as a man is absurd. Playing this modern having a woman wear pants is not only normal, but expected in most circumstances. As such I have tried to focus less on gender and use that modern concept of fluidity and focus more on love. Love is something we always need more of and despite times when we feel like there is none, more often that’s not it is all around us.

Photo of director Jacob Sherwood holding his son, Asher, in Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of 'Twelfth Night.'
Creative differences: Jacob Sherwood, director of Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ with assistant director Asher Sherwood, who has been at every rehearsal.

Q: You say the concept of the show is that it’s “all about love.” Do you believe in love at first sight? (Shakespeare certainly seemed to, at least in his comedies.)

A: Absolutely! After all, why not? Love is not limited to only happening one way or another. I do know that the night I met my wife I was completely smitten the moment she walked in the room. Some might say it was love at first sight, some may not. All that matters to me is that we went out on a date the next night, and every night since. Sounds like love at first sight to me!

Q: Speaking of love, have you ever directed your wife before? Any tips for directors in the same situation?

A: I am incredibly blessed to have such a wife. Not only is she very talented as a singer and actor, but she has a very strong sense of professionalism. As for tips, I don’t think I could give any. Every couple operates differently and every director/actor does too. Find what works, and if it just doesn’t, know it and be aware of it. Sarah can listen to me and follow my instruction but I still struggle when she tries to give me voice lessons. You just never know until you are in that situation and can see what works and what doesn’t.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from “Twelfth Night”?

A: What I want them to take away most is that love is not limited to one definition, one way of happening, or one level of intensity. Love is all around us and love is a part of every aspect in life. All those sappy songs about love keep coming to mind, and the romantic in me can’t help but believe them!


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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