It is the psychedelic 1960s in Illyria, that mythical kingdom where the twins, Viola and Sebastian, have washed up separately from a shipwreck, in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's take on Shakespeare's moody comedy Twelfth Night. Under the direction of Steven Maler, the lively production booms out onto the large crowd gathered on the Boston Common, aided by rock-concert head mics, so there's no problem with the competition from traffic on Beacon Street or airplanes coming in for a landing at Logan Airport.
Viola, disguised as the boy-servant, Cesario, takes a position in Duke Orsino's household and falls for him. The Duke, in love with Countess Olivia, sends Cesario to woo for him, but Olivia becomes entranced with the messager. Meanwhile, Sebastien, entering the city, does not know that his sister is alive. Later, when Olivia sees Sebastien, she woos and marries him, mistaking one twin for the other. The subplot, in an "upstairs-downstairs" variation, deals with Olivia's servants and uncle playing a trick on her chief of staff, Malvolio, to convince him that his mistress favors him as a suitor.
Maler has gathered an ensemble drawn from the best performers in the Boston (and Rhode Island) theater communities, carefully combining them with newcomers from New York and beyond. Marianna Bassham, with her wide eyes that telegraph every fear and desire, plays Viola. Bassham is arguably the doyenne of the younger actresses in the Boston area. She's a gangly Viola, rather than the usual romantic lead, given to second-guessing her actions while driving the plot with a saucy rhythm to her lines and a physicality that propels her easily across the wide stage set up on the Common. Her bewilderment at the cat's cradle of who loves whom is cut by a welcome sense of humor, and empathy for Olivia's situation. Kerry O'Malley as Olivia, her rival for Duke Orsino, is smaller in stature and acerbic at first, almost shrew-like. But she makes a total transformation, in personality as well as costume, when she falls for Viola as Cesario. For a change, Viola in men's clothing, and her twin, Sebastian (Nile Hawver), make a visually believable pair, lessening the confusion.
The pompous major-domo, Malvolio, in a tour-de-force performance by Fred Sullivan, Jr., rules a compliment of clowns who live in Olivia's household including Olivia's drunkard of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Robert Pemberton); her wanna-be suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Connor Christiansen); the fool, Feste (Remo Airaldi who admirably takes on warbling the songs that dot the script); and Maria (Sheree Galpert), dressed as an administrative assistant to Olivia rather than her maid. It is Sullivan who particularly stands out among this group, especially when he makes a grand aria of reading the love letter that he thinks is meant for him. Watching that moment is seeing a master actor at the top of his game.
Maler keeps the servants of the subplot in constant, eccentric motion, climbing up and around the benches and even atop and under a life-sized (and questionable) pink plaster reindeer that serves as one of the props. Costume designer Nancy Leary has dressed the group in gangster-style three-piece suits, Aguecheek in hot pink (topping the look off with a bleached-white Mohawk), and Malvolioin cross-gartered yellow stockings, accessorized with the largest cod piece ever seen.
Maler has done yeoman's service in assuring that every word of this production is spoken clearly and backed by a series of performances that telegraph the intentions of each character to the far reaches of the park. The seesaw mood of the play is established by Cristina Todesco's wildly painted backdrop of doo-wop shapes and extravagant colors, based on a Miami mural created by Victor Reyes. This serves in contrast to an occasional parade of performers dressed in black and carrying umbrellas. They are members of the court of Countess Olivia, in mourning for her father and brother. Much of the evening takes its tone from the scenery, suggesting a go-go society bent on finding love and riotous parties.
It's all very funny, until it is not, which Maler understands. The play ends with the cast moving in a shadowy slow-motion ramble, while Airaldi as Feste croons a mournful rendition of "When that I was and a little tiny boy" to suggest the dark side of the dual pairings. Though, to borrow a phrase from another of Shakespeare's comedies, "Jack has found Jill," with the uniting of Viola and Duke Orsino, and Olivia and Sebastian, Feste's refrain sends the warning that despite the happy ending, "the rain it rainith every day."