In Shakespeare’s gender-bending romantic comedy Twelfth Night, the singing jester Feste is described as a fellow wise enough to play the fool. Brandishing wit and song, Feste challenges and delights the story’s star-crossed lovers, and Heath Saunders lights up the stage as the character in Shakespeare Theatre’s droll new production of the play, directed by Ethan McSweeny.
Saunders, who recently made his Broadway debut in the Tony-winning Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, agrees that, though a clown Feste may be, he certainly is no fool.
“Ethan and I very early on were describing Feste as a bit of a White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland — like a guide through this unusual world,” says Saunders, who notes other mischief makers as inspiration for his take on the character. “I think of him as, and this is a little strange, but like a slightly bro-y Loki, or Anansi the Spider, like a trickster god. [He’s] not all powerful, but likes to mess around with people. He likes to shake things up, because that’s more fun.”
While Feste has his fun observing and influencing the drama of mistaken identities and unrequited love, he expresses much through Shakespeare’s cleverly pointed verse, frequently set to music written for this production by award-winning composer Lindsay Jones. Saunders, a talented songwriter and musician in his own right, describes the collaboration with Jones and music director Matthew Deitchman as one of the highlights of playing the fool.
“This particular process on Twelfth Night has been beautiful,” he says, adding that rehearsals tapped into his creativity as a writer as well as a singer, guitarist, and actor. “They’d present a song for me, and I would sing it how they want it. And they’d [ask], ‘How can we make it feel more like it’s true to you? How can we make it feel like it’s going to be something that you feel really good about singing for yourself?’ So there’s a lot of collaboration in that experience, which is not wildly standard as an actor.”
The mixed-race Seattle native and self-described queer artist felt encouraged to bring his unique combination of attributes fully to the fore. “It’s really lovely for me to be in a show where I just get to be myself, because there aren’t a lot of roles that are like me per se.”
Twelfth Night runs to December 20 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW. Tickets are $25 to $102. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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