Next to "Romeo and Juliet," William Shakespeare's "most perfect comedy" "Twelfth Night (Or What You Will)" has probably most often been produced recently around Boston. The Actors' Shakespeare Project's current production is the first aimed specifically at the season for which the play was intended, and will in fact run through the actual twelfth night of the Christmas holiday. This new company has once again found an ideal venue for this particular show. The former Hall of Deeds at the historic Bullfinch Courthouse, the performance space of the Cambridge Multicultural Art Center, has been used for a variety of alternative theatrical projects over the past two decades, but ASP and director Robert Walsh have found a unique arrangement using this two story open space to the best advantage for this play. Perhaps following Leslie Hotson's suggestion in "The First Night of Twelfth Night", they've seated audience on either side of a central acting area, allowing actors to use the main doors on one side of the space and entrances across the space for access. True to form, ASP's also taken advantage of the architectural features of this ornate room and used the long flight of stairs up to the balcony which circles the space including a bay protruding at the top of the stairs, plus a niche convenient to the doors opposite the entrance and even a large window sill as additional acting areas.
The company has endeavored to establish the air of a holiday entertainment by engaging the audience in a bit of revelry prior to the show, culminating in crowning a "Queen" for the evening, perhaps another nod to the provenance of the text, which apparently was presented before Elizabeth the 1st at the end of the holiday season. The play itself starts immediately thereafter with a funeral procession. Greg Steres playing Orsino brings up the rear and once everyone else has exited, launches into "If music be the food of love..." Live music has been accompanying all the activity since the beginning and the Count's able to move over to address his musicians directly. However, as the poetry becomes more ecstatic, Steres, some six foot and more of him, winds up standing on a large window sill above them on his own private stage. Things are off to a good start .
But any production of this play is really dependent on Viola, who is central to almost all the action. Petite Sarah Newhouse, who appeared as Cordelia opposite Alvin Epstein in "Lear" earlier in the Fall, creates the most completely realized version of this character seen hereabouts. She starts as a frightened girl, but soon shows her mettle dressing as a man in front of the Sea Captain. a slightly embarrassed John Porell. She's soon seen as a somewhat Chaplinesque "Cesario" at Orsino's court, boyish enough, yet quietly smitten by her rugged master, who was seen last season in the title role of "Julius Caesar." She's soon off with love messages to Olivia, the Duke's object of affection played by stately Marya Lowry, who played Buckingham in ASP's inaugural production of "Richard III" and Portia last year in "Caesar."
The Countess was seen earlier in the play as she deals with her errant jester, Feste, played by guest star Kenny Raskin, a physical comedian best known for creating Lefou in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway. As the Clown, Rankin makes his first entrance with a tailor's dummy under his arm, which will be joined by another such improbable object to become a useful prop in the garden scene and elsewhere. He's complemented in her household by local veteran character actor Michael Balcanoff as Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle, and his gull, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by ASP member Michael F. Walker who's a very convincing dolt. All three are smartly managed by Maria, the Countess' waiting gentlewoman, played with authority and good humor by IRNE winner Bobbie Steinbach seen this fall as the Nurse in the New Rep's "Romeo & Juliet." The romantic plot won't work, of course, without Viola's twin brother, Sebastian. The company's called on John Kuntz, who played Richard in their first production and Lucio in "Measure for Measure." This time he plays a straightforward young man, a bit overcome by the attention from John Porell's Antonio--that actor's second part--and swept along by Olivia's giddy passion. He looks enough like his Langtin's Viola to be believable, though since this show is costumed in a collection of Victorian/Edwardian garb, giving the Countess glasses which she seldom wears would help the illusion. Porell triples as the priest for their betrothal, which leads to some intentionally humorous fast costume changes during the climax. He incidentally is also the master of the revels that proceed the play itself.
The other indispensable character in "Twelfth Night" is Olivia's steward, Malvolio, a sour prig, whose comeuppance actually occupies more stage time than the romance. Lanky Ken Cheesman, seen this fall as Lear's Fool and last season as Angelo in "Measure for Measure," manages to humanize this unlikable petty tyrant, who does seem a bit mad when love-struck--just like Orsino, Viola, Olivia, and Sebastian. Crouched chained in a niche which probably once held a statue, his pomposity so fully deflated that even Feste takes pity on him, after the Clown's bedeviled the yellow-stockinged dreamer by pretending to be Sir Tophas, the curate, of course. The rest of the characters in the piece, including Fabian, the incidental conspirator, played by Lisa Kleinman, are a chorus of four young lovelies dressed in tight bodices and hiked up skirts, who lead the dancing before the play, serve in Orsino's court--including as the officers--and play Olivia's ladies as well. One of them even plays the violin briefly, joining the musicians seated beside the acting area. A couple manage to flirt with "Cesario" as well.
Lighting by Brendan Hearn is basic and theatrical; there are a few plants and a bench to dress the set, and director Walsh, one the area's primary fight coordinators has Viola and Aguecheek dueling with sabres. Costume coordinator Amir Ofek has come up with amusing details to suit the characterizations, while maintaining an air of dressup. Dances before and during the show were choreographed by B.U.'s Judith Chafee. The ensemble of cello, Yuan Zhang, and piano, Robin Cho& Natasha Collette, provides musical accompaniment and incidental airs which echo sweetly in this tall hall, circa (1870), with its ornate painted ceiling, marble floor, and painted cast iron trim. ASP's final effort of the year will find them back in Durrell Hall (1890) at Camb. YMCA in Central Square in April and May, playing "All's Well that Ends Well" directed by their artistic director, former ART stalwart, Benjamin Evett. Boston once agian has a professional company dedicated to playing the Bard as written, whose peripatetic productions may allow it to continue longer than previous efforts who've lost their homes and been unable to regroup.