A time-tested comedy, played straight

Countess Olivia (Elizabeth Raetz) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Winkles) in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Twelfth Night.’’ Countess Olivia (Elizabeth Raetz) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Winkles) in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Twelfth Night.’’ (Kevin Sprague)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2009

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LENOX - When’s the last time you left an unabridged, largely unadorned Shakespeare production wishing it had lasted longer? Shakespeare & Company’s “Twelfth Night’’ is so charming and so engaging that the three hours fly by.

Director/designer Jonathan Croy has kept the setup simple, forgoing the modernist temptation to fiddle with time and place. Employing a mostly bare stage (he makes great use of the space’s scaffolding, balcony, and aisles) and sexy-Tudor costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer, Croy steers the audience’s focus to the keenly etched characters who spout Shakespeare’s glorious text while embodying ageless human foibles. If you’ve seen “Twelfth Night’’ - one of the Bard’s more congenial comedies - a dozen times, perhaps in as many gimmicky guises, you might want to see it yet again.

With her husky voice and boyish frame, Merritt Janson is a perfect choice to play Viola, a plucky young woman who - finding herself shipwrecked on a foreign shore - dons male attire as protective camouflage. In one of Shakespeare’s more ingenious plot contrivances, Viola - as “Cesario’’ - signs on as page to the lovelorn Duke Orsino (Duane Allen Robinson) only to be smitten herself, by him. Cesario is charged with pressing the Duke’s suit to the Countess Olivia (Elizabeth Raetz), who in turn falls in love with the Duke’s transgendered messenger.

Threaded through these romantic intrigues are strains of mortality and loss. Viola believes her twin brother, Sebastian, to have drowned in the wreck; despite her grief, she must somehow soldier on. Olivia has, likewise, embarked on a lengthy period of mourning to honor her recently deceased brother. However, Eros soon wins out over Thanatos. In Raetz’s hands, Olivia’s transformation from stone statue to hot-blooded inamorata is swift and hysterical. “ ‘What is your station?’ ’’ she mimics herself like a self-conscious adolescent, recalling in embarrassment her first tentative overture to the comely youth. From then on, her assaults know no bounds.

Raetz conveys both Olivia’s requisite regality and an unbridled physicality, once the royal’s lust is aroused. The combination makes for superb comedy, and Janson as Cesario matches every broad pass with ever-escalating evasions, seeking refuge in the rafters and at one point even proactively crossing Olivia’s legs.

Claiming equal time, and comparable mirth, is the “below stairs’’ subplot to show up Malvolio, Olivia’s vain and prissy chief steward (Ken Cheeseman, in a role he seems born to). Hoping to goad Malvolio into showing his true colors, Sir Toby Belch (Nigel Gore), Olivia’s sponging sot of an uncle, conspires with a dimwitted acolyte, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Winkles), and Maria (Corinna May), Olivia’s clever lady-in-waiting, to bait Malvolio with a forged love letter.

The scene is a classic, and here Croy does bring in some visual aids: silly animal topiaries to shield the conspirators from view. In a bit of inspired business, Maria has the hardest time getting Malvolio to notice the note. Ultimately, she resorts to tying it to his shoe.

Gore is simply brilliant as Belch. At first glance, he might seem too slight and fit to play this caricature of drunken excess. What he’s able to do, though, is bring out the cunning that underlies Belch’s revelries, as well as his genuine camaraderie with Aguecheek, the patsy under his tutelage. Kept in check by the economies of an orderly household, Belch needs a source of income to maintain his preferred lifestyle, and Aguecheek, the bespoke suitor, fits the bill - never mind that Olivia wouldn’t choose this popinjay in a million years.

Typically, Aguecheek is presented as not only doltish, but disqualifiable by reason of age. Winkles gives us a very young and green Aguecheek, and somehow his boasts and poses (the “back trick’’ becomes a leitmotif) are all the more adorable. He spends much of his duel with Cesario - a confrontation both would sooner avoid - immobilized by his own armor, which tends to ride up.

Croy never misses an opportunity for an ingenious sight gag, and yet the antics seem organic, never contrived. The only word of warning I would offer is: Sit wherever you will, you won’t be safe. The action tends to spill over into the audience. Having long since been won over, however, no one seems to mind.

TWELFTH NIGHT Play by William Shakespeare

Directed by: Jonathan Croy.

Set, Croy.

Lights, Les Dickert.

Costumes, Govane Lohbauer.

At Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 5.

Tickets: $15-60. 413-637-3353,

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