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A joyful "Twelfth Night"

by Julie Walker
Wednesday Aug 6, 2014

Gender-bending and quick character and costume changes are all the rage right now in Boston and Cambridge. Commonwealth Shakespeare's rollicking revival of "Twelfth Night" at the Boston Common brings fresh attention to the witty comedy's sharp insights about gender and identity issues and sexual ambivalence.

Even before the pivotal shipwreck that served as a catalyst for Prospero's sorcery in "The Tempest," Shakespeare was pushing the envelope of character transformation in shaking up the fortunes and feelings of storm-tossed twins Viola and Sebastian and bringing subtext and subtlety to the growing adoration of shipmate Antonio for the latter. Disguised as Cesario, Viola becomes enamored of the Duke of mythical West Balkans region Illyria, who seems confused about what may be a gay attraction to the page. Although Viola eventually reveals her true identity, the sometimes clueless Duke has at least recognized the complexity of his own emotions. As for Sebastian friendship with Antonio, bromantic ties do not ultimately prove jeopardized by the male twin's romantic involvement with countess Olivia. While Antonio demonstrates his love for Sebastian in entrusting him with his money purse and putting himself in harm's way to help his friend, Sebastian seems to prize the camaraderie between them-identifying as his purse bearer, even if eventually marrying Olivia.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company out artistic director Steve Maler's exuberant staging catches all of the pre-Freudian insight Shakespeare brought to these relationships. Marianna Bassham, capturing Viola's evolving feelings even as she seeks empowerment as a woman, brilliantly balances this unique heroine's inner strength, quick wit, uncommon resourcefulness and touching vulnerability. Kerry O'Malley catches Olivia's imperiousness in the early going as well as her openness to romance- early on in her attraction to Cesario-playing Viola and later to Sebastian. Bassham and O'Malley's lively banter as Olivia waxes more romantic towards Cesario (Viola) is one of two extended high points in this consistently engaging revival.

The other high point is out CSC favorite Fred Sullivan Jr.'s virtuoso reading as Malvolio of a planted letter that this ambitious steward misinterprets as a sign that Olivia loves him. Sullivan ,Jr. endows his strong performance with the kind of pathos as well as humor that his curious subplot deserves. Remo Airaldi sings lyrically and brilliantly captures the wisdom of Oscar Levantish clown Feste. Robert Pemberton is fine as Olivia's pleasure-centered kinsman Sir Toby Belch, but out Conner Christiansen makes his affluent companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek too flamboyant. Christiansen's over-the-top mannerisms as Andrew suggest a gay nobleman rather than a confused would-be Olivia suitor. Nile Hawver is properly confused as Sebastian, and Woody Gaul brings good directness to Antonio's openness about his love for his shipmate. Robert Najarian effectively conveys Orsino's confusion about his attraction to Cesario. Sheree Galpert has proper attitude as Olivia's mischief-making waiting-gentlewoman Maria.

Nancy Leary's costume design largely complements the characters evolving emotions-especially Olivia's transformation from a veiled mourner dressed in black (coping with back story family loss) to a romancer decked out in a rich green . Only Andrew's pink suit and other outlandish attire seems out of character.

The title of this masterful comedy alludes to the revelries and gender-bending festivities once associated with the festival at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. CSC's joyful "Twelfth Night" will have Shakespeare fans of all persuasions embracing its appealing high spirits.

Twelfth Night, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company , Shakespeare on the Common, Boston, through August 10.Free.