Jeffrey Gantz, Boston Globe October 6, 2011

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare
Actors’ Shakespeare Project

Directed by Melia Bensussen. Set, Cristina Todesco. Lights, Jason Ries. Costumes, Molly Trainer.

Written in (probably) 1601, William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night’’ is the last of his festive comedies. Queen Elizabeth was dying (she would go in 1603), and the ship of state was sinking, so it’s not surprising that the play’s imagery is waterlogged, from the early tableau in which twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked and thrown up on the shore of Illyria to the concluding song, in which clown Feste reminds us that “the rain it raineth every day.’’

Not many productions of “Twelfth Night’’ are eager to let the Bard rain on their parade, but the one that Actors’ Shakespeare Project has up at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Plaza Theatre goes for his water music hook, line, and sinker, and it acts up a storm to boot.

Directed by Melia Bensussen, the almost imperceptibly cut proceedings (ASP’s briskly paced show clocks in at 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission) are set in what looks like the hold of a ship, with a curving, seaweed-pocked slide at one end, and a channel of water running through the center. The matching white, three-piece suits that Viola and Sebastian wear are stained seaweed green on the shoulders and the trouser bottoms, and Feste, in a fool’s motley overcoat, has the same stained trouser bottoms. It’s as if England were standing in seawater up to her ankles – which, in 1601, may well have been how Shakespeare felt.

Water is also essential to the play’s sense of identity, which is, to say the least, fluid. Believing Sebastian dead, Viola assumes a male identity – Cesario – and enters the service of Duke Orsino, who’s convinced he’s in love with the Countess Olivia. Olivia is in mourning for her father and her brother, so she professes no interest in Orsino, but she can’t keep her eyes off Cesario, who for his (uh, her) part is hopelessly devoted to Orsino. Throw in sea captain Antonio’s abject affection for Sebastian (not dead, of course) and you have a play in which all our desires are dreams, a play whose title befits the 12th and final night of Christmas, when the Lord of Misrule (here represented by Sir Toby Belch and cronies Maria and Fabian) rains, reigns, and runs riot.

Not that you can float your concept without actors to crew the boat. ASP’s hearties are uniformly shipshape, headed by Marianna Bassham’s engagingly spunky, open, Lisa Kudrow-like Viola, Paula Langton’s sly, winsome Maria, Steven Barkhimer’s cheeky, barefoot Feste, and Allyn Burrows’s sweetly ridiculous Malvolio, the steward who’s hoping for Olivia’s hand. There’s a sweetness about the entire group, in fact – no meanness or cynicism here. James Andreassi’s Sir Toby is a grizzled sea dog in cargo pants, Jason Bowen’s Orsino a desperate duke drowning in love thoughts, Mara Sidmore’s Olivia a girlish, volatile countess, and Doug Lockwood’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Olivia’s third suitor) an earnest, obtuse beanpole.

Jesse Hinson’s Sebastian is by turns callow and choleric, but we don’t see much of Hinson till the end, since in Sebastian’s initial scenes with Antonio (a passionate Omar Robinson), the character is played by Bassham. Bensussen’s gender-bending idea seems to be that no one can tell the twins apart – especially the people who fall in love with them. This might be too much of a good thing, the more so since Robinson doubles as the other (unnamed) sea captain, the one who rescues Viola. But foolery, as Feste observes, “does walk around the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.’’ Certainly it shines in this production, which is just the thing for a rainy day.