Deception drives the main story line of “Twelfth Night’’ from the moment a young woman named Viola, having survived a shipwreck, makes the impulsive decision to disguise herself as a man and enter the employ of Duke Orsino.
But it is a subplot involving massive self-deception on the part of a figure who may initially seem like a minor character — the hapless Malvolio — that resonates most deeply and even unsettlingly in “Twelfth Night,’’ now at Lyric Stage Company of Boston in a co-production with Actors’ Shakespeare Project, directed by Paula Plum.
Believed to have been written around 1601 or 1602, “Twelfth Night, or What You Will’’ is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. Given what a reliable audience-pleaser it’s proven to be hereabouts, there is seldom a long interval between local stagings. Indeed, “Twelfth Night’’ productions are approaching the frequency (and over-familiarity) of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’
In 2014, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company staged “Twelfth Night’’ on Boston Common, followed in 2016 by two more productions of the play: one from England, presented at the Paramount Center by ArtsEmerson, and the other an ingenious double version of “Twelfth Night’’ presented at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater by the New York-based theater company known as Bedlam. Yet another “Twelfth Night’’ is scheduled for July at Shakespeare & Company, to be set in 1959 and directed by Allyn Burrows (former ASP artistic director, now holding the same post in Lenox).
Plum has opted to locate her production in New Orleans during the 1920s Jazz Age, which makes the script’s references to the land of Illyria a bit puzzling, but never mind. More problematic is the fact that the cast, which includes Hayley Spivey as Viola and Alejandro Simoes as Orsino, seems to struggle to find their rhythm in the first half of the play.
To fully work, “Twelfth Night’’ needs to unfold at a rapid clip, but that doesn’t happen during an erratic and sometimes sluggish Act 1 as the plot pieces click into place. Viola has been separated during the shipwreck from her twin brother, Sebastian (Dominic Carter), and believes him drowned. Believing the same of her, he accepts the aid and companionship of Antonio (Michael Forden Walker). She becomes Orsino’s servant under the male guise of Cesario; then, at her employer’s behest, Viola-as-Cesario tries to persuade the countess Olivia (Samantha Richert) to reciprocate Orsino’s affections.
But Olivia becomes smitten instead with the go-between who’s doing the surrogate wooing. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino, for reasons that remain opaque. After beginning the play on a high note with “If music be the food of love, play on,’’ Orsino becomes progressively less interesting. (“We wince at most Shakespearean matches, and this may be the silliest . . .’’ the eminent scholar Harold Bloom once wrote of the Viola-Orsino pairing.) A consistent asset is Rachel Belleman, who shines (and sings wonderfully) as the fool Feste (like King Lear’s fool, Feste possesses enough wisdom to clearly see through those whose social rank does nothing to protect them from acts of folly).
The pace picks up at Lyric Stage in Act 2 after a kick-start from the inimitable Richard Snee, who plays Malvolio (and is married to director Plum). A vain, priggish, and censorious yet somehow oddly sympathetic steward in Olivia’s household, Malvolio ends up on the receiving end of a mean-spirited prank, then plays into the hands of his deceivers by deluding himself into believing that Olivia has the hots for him.
With his customary aplomb, Snee ascends to the heights of comic lunacy as Malvolio — attired in cross-garters and blindingly yellow stockings (and, it turns out, yellow boxers) — proudly displays himself, like an addled peacock, to a bewildered and vexed Olivia. Crucially, though, Snee also captures the fundamental poignancy of Malvolio as he is humiliated and subjected to harsh treatment all out of proportion to his sins by Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, Maria (Jennie Israel); Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Bobbie Steinbach); and his sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Simoes).
With their matching bowlers and differences in stature, Simoes and Steinbach evoke Laurel and Hardy, which is fitting, given the slapstick spirit of the production. That spirit makes it entirely possible to have a good time at this “Twelfth Night,’’ but on balance this is a production that strains after exuberance rather than effortlessly generating it.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paula Plum. Co-production by Lyric Stage Company of Boston and Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Lyric Stage through April 28. Tickets $25-$73, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin