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Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” is ever-fresh, veteran performer declares

Thursday, July 23, 2009
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From left, Elizabeth Raetz as Olivia and Merrit Janson as Viola rehearse a scene from 
Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” part of the summer season at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.
From left, Elizabeth Raetz as Olivia and Merrit Janson as Viola rehearse a scene from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” part of the summer season at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

— Jonathan Croy has performed in “Twelfth Night” on three occasions and is directing it for the fifth time. Does he grow weary of the acquaintance?

“I honestly believe that this is the most perfect comedy ever written,” said Croy, who is directing Shakespeare’s masterpiece at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox this summer.

“Every time we go into rehearsal, we specifically try to create the play that’s in the room. Every time an actor takes on one of these roles, we have to find what’s personal between them and the character. So, we’re not stuck with restaging the same play over and over again.”

That would be a resounding no.

“Malcolm Ingram was a wonderful Toby, but now we have Nigel Gore, and he is an incredibly gifted actor,” said Croy. “Merrit Janson is going to find something new in Viola. Every time a group of actors gets into a room, each one approaches a role differently and has different responses to the other actors and the characters they play. I think that’s what keeps the play so fresh for us.”

‘Twelfth Night’

WHERE: Shakespeare & Company, Founders’ Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass.

WHEN: Previews begin 7:30 p.m. Friday; show opens July 31 and runs through Sept. 5; performance times vary

HOW MUCH: $37-$25

MORE INFO: (413) 637-3353 or www.shakespeare.org

That and because, as Croy says, it’s a great piece of work.

Something for everyone

“It’s a great play because the characters are interesting, the relationships are lush, the events are compelling and on top of that it’s a comedy,” he said. “It has the broadest comedic vocabulary of any play I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve done a lot of comedies. It has rapier-sharp wit, painful puns, silly physical business and very honest moments. Usually, you might go to a theater and see a farce, and you’re seeing a farce for two hours. But ‘Twelfth Night’ has something for everyone.”

“Twelfth Night,” which sometimes includes the subtitle “Or What You Will,” was probably written around 1601 and eventually published in 1623. The story includes a case of mistaken identity — like many of Shakespeare’s plays — and focuses on the trials and tribulations of a cross-dressing heroine named Viola.

Twelfth Night is in actuality an Elizabethan festival that included various forms of entertainment designed to mark the end of the Christmas season. It is named for the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday with roots in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, and is characterized by the same irreverent spirit associated with Halloween and Mardi Gras.

The play, a staple at theaters around the world, was one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and most scrutinized works, the theme easily accessible to novice fans of the playwright while at the same time appreciated by academic scholars. It has been produced 30 different times on Broadway since 1904, most recently a 1998 production that earned five Tony nominations.

The Shakespeare & Company production is set in the Elizabethan Era. “Or, as our costume designer likes to say, ‘late neo-Tudor,’ ” said Croy. “That’s a bit of a departure because a lot of times you’ll see it set in a new context. We’ve done that here with ‘Othello’ and ‘Hamlet.’ But our actors are going to wear the same costumes that Shakespeare’s would have worn, with a few adjustments. The dressed will be beautiful.”

Croy, who grew up just outside Chicago, has been an actor/director with Shakespeare & Company for 24 years.

“I came, I went away and then I came back,” he said. “I didn’t think I was coming back for more than two decades. I came back for a month, got married, bought a house and before you know it I’m living in the Berkshires. But I love it.”

Croy and his wife, Jenna Ware, both work with the Shakespeare & Company youth programs throughout the school year.

“The summer is actually a bit lighter, schedule-wise, for me,” said Croy, who went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “During the school year, the education programs are really cranking. We work with over 30,000 students a year and tour all over New England. There are some long days, but we love it.”

A hit with teens

So do the children, particularly young teenagers, according to Croy.

“The MTV, the Facebook generation is right in tune with what Shakespeare was doing,” he said. “He could give you three turns of thought in one line of verse, and they say young teens today can change an image or get a new idea in 1.2 seconds or something like that. They assimilate images faster, and when we take Shakespeare on the road these kids get to respond to what he’s saying. There’s a collaboration in every classroom we go into. I think the kids today love Shakespeare. He’s right up their alley.”

Joining Gore as Sir Toby Belch and Janson as Viola in the cast are Duane Allen Robinson as Orsino, Elizabeth Raetz as Olivia and Ken Cheeseman as Malvolio.

 
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