LENOX — One of the Bard's most endearing and enduring comedies, "Twelfth Night," penned to celebrate the end of Christmas, is this summer's offering by Shakespeare & Company at the Dell outdoor theater at the Mount, Edith Wharton and the company's former Lenox home.
A trimmed-down troupe of teaching artists from S&Co's education program — returning actors Marcus Kearns, Gregory Boover, Conor Seamus Moroney and Kaileela Hobby, plus newcomers Colin Gold and Zoe Laiz — recently performed the play on an extensive spring tour to high schools, colleges and theaters across the northeast from Maryland to Maine.
Back in the Berkshires, the Dell's sylvan setting stands in for the fictional land of Illyria, now home to shipwrecked Viola who disguises herself as a man for safety and freedom of expression, both physical and verbal. As the young man "Cesario," Viola finds herself in an unexpected relationship triangle with a lovelorn lord and lusty lady.
The imaginative plot is full of devices — disguises and mistaken identities, separated siblings, misplaced affections — and characters from outspoken underlings to beery bombasts that would be easily recognized by Shakespeare fans past and present.
With reassuring inevitability, the pompous are put in their place, love and family bonds prevail and harmony is restored.
In a recent conversation at the company's Bernstein Theatre, Hobby, last seen at the Dell in 2014, described Viola as energetic, passionate and headstrong. Living as a man provides her with "an opportunity to have an adventure." she said.
Since each actor plays multiple roles requiring many quick changes, Hobby credited longtime company costume designer Govane Lohbauer with creating "beautiful costumes that are really easy to take on and off," she said.
Trickier to deal with are the complex scenarios in which Viola finds herself. "O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to untie," Hobby quoted.
This spring, she experienced first hand how much influence performing Shakespeare on stage and leading workshops can have on young people. Seeing audience members inspired to join their schools' acting troupes was "one of the best things about the tour," she said.
Director and company co-artistic director Jonathan Croy had the task of trimming the play down to 90 minutes.
"You've got to weigh things against each other and keep in mind the story you want to tell," he said. "It's a fascinating way to get to know a play, to go through it again and again."
A cross-dressing character like Viola would have been readily accepted by Elizabethan audiences, noted Croy — and all the more intriguing since the role would have been played in that era by a male actor.
"I agree with Tina [company co-founder Packer] that, in that altered state of societal existence, you have the freedom to speak your mind," he said.
Noting how smoothly the play moves from dismay to hilarity, Croy reeled off some of the myriad forms of humor Shakespeare used — parody, wit, wordplay, fool, clown, mistaken identity and just plain "physical shenanigans."
"[His] comedies constantly switch gears on me," he said. "For every step you take toward the silly, you take another step toward the deep, so that the play itself remains balanced."
"Twelfth Night" is Croy's favorite Shakespeare comedy.
"It brings a whole other side of what I consider to be his primary genius, and that is the ability to bring darkness and light together in interesting relationship," he said. "He juxtaposes with such great facility that the light seems lighter and the dark seems darker."
"All the 'twin' plays are a search for identity, a recovery of self. So through this down-the-rabbit-hole journey that Viola takes to get there, it's toward joy."
In the broad light of day at the Dell, Croy and Shakespeare promise, all things will be made clear.
What: "Twelfth Night." Directed by Jonathan Croy
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: The Dell at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox
When: July 14-Aug. 20, Selected evenings at 6, afternoons at 4:30, mornings at 11
Tickets: $20 adults; $10 children
How: (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org
Seating: Bring blankets or chairs; grounds open two hours before show for picnics