WELLESLEY — Commonwealth Shakespeare Company had chosen “Twelfth Night” for this summer’s Free Shakespeare on the Common production by the time Steven Maler left for a Miami vacation last December. But Maler, the company’s founding artistic director, wasn’t sure where the production was headed, stylistically.
He found his answer, he said, at an alumni event in Florida for Babson College. It wasn’t the event itself that inspired him, but Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, where it was held in a warehouse-turned-business incubator.
“We’re taking a cab over there, and we are just driving and driving and driving, and it’s like, where the heck are we? Where are we going?” Maler said recently. “And we get to this reception, and the thing that was extraordinary was this neighborhood. I felt like I had dropped into some crazy Fellini film on acid. It was one of the most surreal environments I’ve ever been in. It was just amazing.”
Artists had moved into a once-derelict neighborhood and “made the whole area this living canvas, with block after block after block of these extraordinary paintings on the walls” and a vibrant street life even late on a weeknight, Maler said. “You’d look down an alley with these amazing dragon paintings and say, ‘That’s either going to be the best party I’ve ever been to, or I’m going to get killed back there.’”
That, he eventually decided, was the right vibe for Shakespeare’s play, set in “crazy, bizarre” Illyria. He, set designer Cristina Todesco, and the rest of the team are creating a vibrantly colored, vivid world that exists outside time and place. The performances by a cast including Marianna Bassham (Viola), Nile Hawver (Sebastian), Kerry O’Malley (Olivia), Robert Najarian (Orsino), and Robert Pemberton (Sir Toby Belch) are set for July 23-Aug. 10 on Boston Common.
Maler and his cast have been rehearsing the play in Wellesley at Babson, where Commonwealth Shakespeare is the resident theater company.
The play, which Maler calls Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, finds twins Sebastian and Viola separated by a shipwreck, each believing the other lost. Viola disguises herself as a young man, Cesario, in Illyria, where she becomes a servant of Duke Orsino. Orsino sends Cesario to Olivia, with whom he is in love. Olivia falls for Cesario. Mistaken identities and romantic misunderstandings quickly multiply.
“The thing I love about this play is it is such a melancholic comedy,” Maler said. “He was writing this as he was writing ‘Hamlet.’ This sense of multiple deaths, some real and some perceived, that happen before the play begins is really sort of fascinating. So the play to me is about the journey from that place of sadness to celebration and to the embrace of life and the impulse to take a chance again on love and on embracing life.”
That’s the Wynwood connection, he says: “There’s no sadder place to be when you’re sad and lonely than at a great party. Illyria is a wild place, of vitality, of sensuality, of Bacchanalian celebration, and you’ve got these characters sort of wrapped in black.”
The Babson arrangement has other advantages, including using the 441-seat Carling-Sorenson Theater as a rehearsal space for “Twelfth Night.” A model of Todesco’s set sits on one of the production tables lining the front of the stage as Maler runs Bassham and O’Malley through a scene together as Cesario and Olivia. For all the talk of melancholy, there was mostly laughter as Olivia knee-walked across the stage, calling out desperate entreaties to the departing Cesario.
“No dignity,” O’Malley said cheerfully when they stopped.
As Sebastian, Hawver is a new face among the well-known Boston actors in the cast. A Rhode Island native, he first came to Boston in spring 2013 to do a show at the Davis Square Theatre. But during that stay he met the woman who is now his girlfriend, and has since settled here and landed roles in “Twelfth Night” and the upcoming “Ether Dome” at the Huntington Theatre Company. He’s played Sebastian before — outdoors, too — with Montana Shakespeare, and won the role through an open audition.
Hawver finds the role fascinating, but challenging. “I did the show probably 50 times in Montana, and I never felt like I ‘got it,’ ” the actor said. “It’s like an emotional workout because you have to imagine the loss of the father three months ago and the sister a week ago, and then he meets this woman, Olivia, and they decide to get married. I like the exploration of the state he must be in to make those kinds of decisions and reach all those extremes that a person can experience in such a short time.”
The rehearsals mark the company’s first year at Babson, receiving both financial and in-kind support from the business school. In the coming season, Maler plans to offer two script-in-hand performances at the Sorenson, following one this year, and hopes to bring in a full production, probably as a collaboration with a company somewhere else in the country.
One part of the initial plan has been scrapped: The idea for a half-dozen preview performances of each summer’s Common production outdoors to take place on the Wellesley campus.
“It was going to be very expensive to do the fully mounted production out here and then pick it up and take it to Boston Common,” Maler said. “But also, though the campus is active in the summer, it felt like a substantial investment of resources at a time when students and faculty couldn’t really participate, so what’s the point then?”
In general, though, the move has been a big positive for the company. The company’s offices, summer rehearsals, education, and apprentice programs were “scattered all over the place” in the city, he said: “What’s been great about this is to sort of have us all here together. There has been a stronger sense of community amongst ourselves.”
Maler said Babson gives the company something else important, which has been brought home by events such as the announcement that Boston’s Factory Theatre will close this fall.
“Space is a crisis, not only performance space but rehearsal space,” Maler said. “Not that this is a refuge, but it is a home base for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and to have a beautiful space like this for rehearsals — we have two spaces — it’s a real gift to the process and to the company. And a very direct gift to the City of Boston that Babson’s giving. Babson’s helping to make this thing we do very sustainable.”
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.