Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
$44-108 (discounts available)
Since she was a girl growing up in suburban Pflugerville, Texas, actor Antoinette Robinson has been drawn to the classics.
“As a kid I did prose and poetry competitions in Austin. And every time I’d choose a poem, I’d pick some heavy Greek classic. There I was a little 8-year-old reciting this,” she recalls clearly amused by the memory. And though there aren’t many opportunities to do classic Greek drama, Robinson says she’d one day love to play the title role in Sophocles’ “Antigone,” the timely story of one woman against the state.
Until then, Robinson who identifies as bisexual, happily busies herself with Shakespeare. She currently is playing Viola, the clever heroine in director Ethan McSweeny’s production of the Bard’s comedy “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
After having been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, Viola assumes her twin brother Sebastian is drowned. Ever resourceful, she disguises herself as “Cesario,” and is hired as a page boy in Duke Orsino’s court. Soon she finds herself in the middle of a volatile love triangle involving both Orsino (Bhavesh Patel) and Olivia (Hannah Yelland), a young countess in mourning who resides at a neighboring estate.
“Viola is one of those parts,” says Robinson, 30. “Just like with Rosalind (‘As You Like It’), Lady M. (‘Macbeth’), and Beatrice (‘Much Ado About Nothing’) when you get the opportunity to play the part, you take it.”
She first learned the company was looking for a Viola when she playing loyal friend Flavius in “Timon of Athens” at Folger Theatre earlier this year (director Robert Richmond had switched the character’s gender and race). Robinson auditioned, was called back and waited. Eventually she got the call offering her Viola, a moment Robinson compares to “Christmas morning.”
“The crossdressing is so much fun. The production is set in 2017 and designer Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are wonderful. She has real vision and it’s exciting. Personally, I love when a woman can wear a suit with a pair of heels. The lens through which we see women’s fashion is bursting open and my costumes as Cesario play into that.”
Unsurprisingly, the moment Viola appears dressed as Cesario, everyone is expected to believe she’s a man. The Duke admires Cesario’s lips and small voice all the while believing he’s truly a boy. And Olivia, charmed by Cesario’s more feminine characteristics, falls hard for the young man.
A woman disguising herself as a man didn’t feel familiar to Robinson exactly, but she instantly related to the world they’re creating in Illyria where the boundaries of femininity and masculinity are blurred. “The lines of what it means to act or love as a man or woman are crossed in this play. And that’s something I really enjoy.”
Robinson is bisexual, but concedes it’s new to her in many ways.
“I’m experiencing my first relationship with a woman. Only a year ago I didn’t identify, so every day I learn new things and I catch myself breaking through and breaking down on things we’ve taught about who we are based on our sex.”
After having worked off-Broadway and regionally, Robinson first came to Washington to play Celia in Folger Theatre’s “As You Like It” in the summer of 2016.
“D.C. felt more like home than New York City. I immediately fell in love. Politically, times are rough right now but doing things like participating in the Women’s March gives me a voice.”
Thankfully busy, Robinson is currently a company member at the REP in Delaware too.
“If I could maintain that relationship but also work and live in D.C. then my life would be made,” she says.