Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ delivers fresh perspective on Shakespearean classic

Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre presents its summer production of “Twelfth Night,” a play by William Shakespeare, from June 16 to July 2 — it features a stellar cast, fabulous costumes, and a truly unique set. 


Cody Blissett

Adam Knight the Director of William Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night introduces attendees before the live performance of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Iowa City on Thursday, June 22, 2023.

Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor

For this year’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production, Riverside Theatre elected to stage their rendition of “Twelfth Night.” 

This play tells the tale of twins Viola and Sebastian, who get separated in the resort town of Illyria after a shipwreck. Viola, lost and of the assumption that her brother perished in the wreck, disguises herself as a man named Cesario and starts serving Duke Orsino, where she is introduced to the people of Illyria.

Navigating what may be literature’s most intricate love triangle sprinkled with Old English dialogue can be a challenge. But the cast of this production skillfully lends a fresh perspective to the play with their incredible cadence, humor, and body language.

“Twelfth Night,” written in the early 17th century, is among William Shakespeare’s renowned works such as “Macbeth” and “The Tempest,” all featured in the “First Folio” published in 1623, seven years after his death.

Adam Knight, the director of the production, pointed out that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the “First Folio.” 

“There are a few small ad-libs here and there, but the play still resonates,” Knight said. “We don’t have to change it — it still speaks to us and, even the parts that sound weird, we get what [Shakespeare’s] going for. So, I do think that we’re doing the play justice.”

The production pays its respects to Shakespeare’s original story but introduces many unique, modern elements:

Scenic designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson decorated the perimeter of the stage with flowers and other greenery woven through wooden planks. Johnson also decided that poolside decor should inhabit the elevated portion of stage right, including lounge chairs, striped pool towels, and even a neon-pink flamingo pool float. Behind that, a fully stocked bar cart. 

Costume designer Abigail Mansfield Coleman drew from multiple decades with her costumes: Olivia, played by Saffron Henke, wore a Victorian-era black dress with a pair of sunglasses hanging from the corset bust; Sir Toby, played by Aaron Stonerook, sported a button-down Hawaiian shirt; and Sir Andrew, played by Bob Mussett, delivered many of his lines in a paisley suit.

The contemporary relevance of the play, particularly Viola’s gender disguise, adds a layer of social commentary to the play in light of recent anti-transgender legislation. 

“We’re presenting this play about people finding their way through disguise, through gender-bending in a time in which that is being challenged, so it just felt like it resonated in a lot of ways,” Knight said. 

The play also experiments with gender representation in its casting, with the role of Malvolia —originally written for a man — portrayed by actress Sarah Gazdowicz in Riverside’s version. This creative choice introduces a nuance of same-sex love between Malvolia and Olivia, a dynamic infrequently explored in Shakespearean productions.

 “It’s a play in which joy and laughter and revelry comes out of the shadow of loss,” Knight said. 

Olivia Foster, who plays Viola, echoed this sentiment. 

“Taking those traumatic events and making something beautiful out of it — it’s really cool to me, and it’s very important to see,” she said.

The production is scheduled to run until July 2 and is completely free to the public, performed on the Festival Stage at Lower City Park.