At Fringe Festival, UMN students give new life to Shakespeare

In “What You Will,” students explore transgender identity and the urgency of Shakespeare.

The cast of

Ellen Schmidt

The cast of “What You Will” conduct a rehearsal on Monday, July 31, 2017 at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The play, which explores transgender identity through Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is part of Minnesota Fringe Fest 2017.

Gunthar Reising

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban, a group of University of Minnesota students aimed to present transgender voices in a traditionally patriarchal medium.

Under the organization of senior theater major Henry Ellen Sansone, five students will perform Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival — with a contemporary twist.

The play follows a woman who is shipwrecked. To ensure her safety in an unknown territory, she presents herself as a man. From there, love triangles emerge, taking the form of man and woman, woman and woman and man and man — it can get confusing.

But this gender confusion is exactly what the cast uses to speak on a more contemporary topic: transgender identity.

Sansone, who identifies as transgender, connected immediately with the main character, Viola.

“This character is very clearly trans to me,” Sansone said. “I decided I wanted to explore [the play] through that lens.”

Despite Sansone’s immediate relation to Shakespeare’s character, this reading is in no way mainstream.

“It’s almost always someone who’s cisgender playing that role,” Sansone said. “So it felt urgent, because that’s not a very visible lens in Shakespeare and the theater.”

Fourth year theater major Laura Torgeson, who plays Olivia, attributes the “cis-white-hetero-patriarchy” with “training people not to think of [Shakespeare] in certain ways.”

For the cast, however, these academic norms are irrelevant.

“I don’t care what Shakespeare’s original intention was,” Sansone said. “I think people claim original practices, but let’s be real — we know 10 things about Shakespeare for certain. It’s kind of been our [mantra] that ‘Shakespeare’s dead; we’re not. Let’s do this play.’”

With that said, the cast is still respecting the script.

“We haven’t changed the text, we haven’t manipulated anything,” said Kiaran Hartnett, a theater and psychology double major who plays Feste and Antonio. “So it might not have been Shakespeare’s original intention, but it’s actually all there.”

Danylo Loutchko, a theater and English double major who plays Sebastian, explained it’s not about the author at all. It’s about the play.

“We’re working with the text, and not thinking of the author as an author. It’s more like Shakespeare is an artifact we’re working with. [ … ] From a theatrical perspective the text is more neutral.”

The cast’s take on “Twelfth Night” raises questions about what the literary canon even means in a world starting to recognize a multiplicity of historically disregarded voices. For Sansone, it’s not necessarily about scrapping the entire system.

“What I think we need to do is both include new people in this canon and do the work of expanding what these old stories mean,” Sansone said. “I think there’s something powerful in taking this thing, which is apparently a cultural language, and flipping it. Realizing that other people have always been in these stories but have been ignored.”

In other words, for the cast, Shakespeare is far from irrelevant in the modern world.

“Gender has always been an important theme, even in Shakespeare,” Sam Bates Norum, who plays Orsino, said. “So yes, Shakespeare lived 400 years ago, but it’s urgent.”

Editor’s Note: Danylo Loutchko formerly worked for the Minnesota Daily.