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African American talent shines in ‘Twelfth Night’ at Lyric Stage

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
African American talent shines in ‘Twelfth Night’ at Lyric Stage
Samantha Richert and Hayley Spivey in Twelfth Night. PHOTO: COURTESY LYRIC STAGE THEATER

African American actors Hayley Spivy and Dominic Carter star in the production of “Twelfth Night” jointly produced by Lyric Stage Company and Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Running through April 28 at the Lyric Stage theater on Clarendon Street, the classic comedy of disguise and mistaken identity gets a twist, told through the lens of the 1920s, complete with occasional song and dance.

“Twelfth Night” is Spivy’s Shakespearean debut and she says she was surprised by how naturally the text flows in speech. “I was really surprised that Shakespeare’s writing makes it easy to act,” she says. As for her character, Viola, it was love at first read. “I’m always obsessed with breaking down gender barriers and I love how easily she takes on the identity of a man,” says Spivy.

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The premise of the classic story is that twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck and Viola decides to dress as her brother to get back on her feet. Naturally, a love triangle ensues. Viola falls for her boss Duke Orsino (who thinks she’s a man), Orsino is in love with a beautiful heiress named Olivia, and Olivia falls in love with Viola (again, thinking she’s a man). Then Sebastian shows up, further confusing the players. Delightful Shakespearean chaos ensues.

The roaring ’20s take provides an interesting, workable lens to the text. Director Paula Plum, a Boston area theatre favorite, infuses the era in costume and in dance steps and regular songs performed primarily by Feste (Rachel Bellemen), the fool character. Spivy points out, “In the 1920s we had a lot of drag culture forming,” an appropriate theme for the mixed identity plotline. And indeed, the boyish silhouettes popular for women at the time lend themselves to androgynous costuming. The production doesn’t take itself too seriously, an important quality for a Shakespearean comedy. Though perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the musical numbers, the show otherwise provides a thought-provoking set for “Twelfth Night.”

Spivy says a comedy with a happy ending is just what audiences needs in the challenging current American social climate. The touching reunion between Sebastian and Viola is one of her personal favorite scenes in the show. That black actors star in the show is the icing on the cake. “Especially for the students coming to the show, I think it’s important for them to see people of color on stage in lead roles,” says Spivy.

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