When Marianna Bassham cries “I am not what I am!’’ midway through the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Twelfth Night,’’ she’s articulating a condition common to numerous characters in Shakespeare.
The playwright sought time and again to explore the dramatic or comedic possibilities of concealed, mistaken, and generally confused identity, anticipating by several centuries our modern notions about the mutability and fluidity of the self. Within that context, one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices was the old gender switcheroo: Consider “As You Like It,’’ “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’’ “The Merchant of Venice.’’
And consider “Twelfth Night,’’ in which Bassham portrays Viola, a woman disguised as a man who is being pursued by a woman but who is in love with a man. It’s an adroit performance by one of Boston’s finest actresses. Bassham’s trademark is a kind of expressive transparency that leaves nerve endings exposed, and here she lets us see each gradation of Viola’s identity-juggling and the range of feelings she experiences along the way.
The production at Boston Common is a mixed bag overall. Director Steven Maler keeps the energy level high, the pace rapid, and the action clearly delineated. He astutely gives free rein to a pair of inventive performers who have been standouts in earlier CSC productions, and are so again in “Twelfth Night’’: Fred Sullivan Jr., as the ludicrously pompous Malvolio, and Remo Airaldi, as Feste, a Fool who wears a Harpo Marx-like top hat.
At times, though, this “Twelfth Night’’ gives off a trying-too-hard vibe, succumbing to an overly broad approach that feels like someone tugging on your sleeve and asking “Isn’t this funny?’’ Partly, one assumes, this is the tradeoff involved in performing Shakespeare outdoors for a huge audience.
Bassham helps keep the production rooted in human emotion. Viola survives a shipwreck off the coast of Illyria that separates her from her twin brother, Sebastian (an appealing Nile Hawver). The shipwreck is effectively evoked in a wordless sequence choreographed by Yo-el Cassell. Once she’s ashore, Viola adopts a male identity, donning men’s clothing and calling herself Cesario to land a job as a servant to Duke Orsino, somewhat stiffly portrayed by Robert Najarian.
Sparks begin to fly between Orsino and his new, ostensibly male servant; their towel-snapping camaraderie is clearly edging toward something more. Yet Orsino believes himself in love with the Countess Olivia, portrayed with deftness and wit by Kerry O’Malley. (It is Olivia who inspires Orsino to utter the famous line: “If music be the food of love, play on . . .’’). So the duke dispatches Viola/Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. While the countess proves utterly indifferent to the message and to Orsino, she soon takes an avid romantic interest in the messenger.
Meanwhile, the general insufferability of Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, has made him exceedingly unpopular with Feste; Sir Toby Belch (Robert Pemberton), Olivia’s bibulous uncle; Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Conner Christiansen in an over-the-top performance that is amusing and annoying in roughly equal measure); and Maria (Sheree Galpert), Olivia’s maid. They pull a prank on Malvolio, arranging for him to find a letter that purports to be from Olivia, professing her ardor.
Sullivan makes a delirious comic aria out of the moment when Malvolio frantically tries to convince himself that the initials in the letter refer to him. Airaldi, with his rubber face and a distinctive delivery that always makes it sound as if he is confiding a secret to the audience, excels in the role of Feste, one of Shakespeare’s wisdom-spouting Fools.
Cristina Todesco’s set, inspired by street art in Miami, is dominated by a large mural backdrop on which white, swirling shapes are punctuated by what look like eyeballs, in colors of green, yellow, and purple. Costume designer Nancy Leary, who did sterling work for last year’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’’ appears to have relished the freedom afforded by a “Twelfth Night’’ that is not anchored firmly to a specific time or place.
Leary has attired Bassham’s Viola-as-Cesario in a gray vest and what appear to be parachute pants, Pemberton’s Sir Toby in a natty white suit and two-toned shoes, and Malvolio in a mauve vest and eventually, yellow leggings and cross garters. He’s a preposterous sight. Like others in “Twelfth Night,’’ the poor guy does it for love.