As the sun set on Sunday night, orange and blue lights bathed a stage set up like a marble coastal villa. Children ducked around my seat during a game of tag and a family behind me loudly discussed the challenges of buying furniture at Ikea. There was neither a suit nor a tie to be found in the audience, and those who did not have lawn chairs sat on blankets in the grass. Having only seen London-, Stratford- and Yale-produced Shakespeare plays, the relaxed atmosphere unsettled me at first. Was I about to sit through three hours of garbled Shakespeare from an unqualified community theater? Fortunately, the actors and crew of the Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of “Twelfth Night,” directed by James Andreassi, quickly proved my suspicions baseless, forcing me to reevaluate my biased views of community Shakespeare productions.

After an introduction by Barbara Schaffer, the company’s development director, the play opened with an overacted and overwrought monologue by Aaron Moss as Duke Orsino, who took many a needless pause and used his arms to accent words that weren’t particularly important to the monologue. This was followed by the introduction of Viola, played by Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, who had a voice so bright I thought it might pierce my eardrums if the sound tech did not adjust her microphone. It seemed like the actors had no sooner stepped out of their cars than into their costumes and onstage, and the lack of warming up made for a noticeably slow opening. 

However, the team of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria, played by James Andreassi, Jeremy Funke and Paula Plum, respectively, saved the energy of the show from the moment they stepped on stage. With a natural comedic energy, Andreassi and Plum bounced surprisingly tasteful phallic jokes and well-controlled slapstick back and forth, which brought many audience members into the action in a way the quieter opening exchanges of the show hadn’t. They exited to the sound of laughter and staggered applause, and the momentum carried through to Barnett-Mulligan’s return: She brought a rejuvenated energy to her performance and paid greater attention to dialect.

For the next two hours, I was uncharacteristically on the edge of my seat, my notebook lacking comments, my mind engaged with the play as it never was in my study of it. Raphael Massie’s Malvolio and Jacob Heimer’s Feste were the most notable performances of the night. Massie danced and gyrated in bright yellow cross-gartered stockings, generating belly laughs and the loudest applause of the night, and resultantly, an uncomfortable silence during his final appearance. As he runs off vowing revenge, the audience found their sympathies hard to place. The moral ambiguity of Malvolio’s character present in the text of the play was obviously discerned by Andreassi, who offered a clear-eyed view on bullying that the children present in the audience could easily understand. (Some of the children sitting near me fidgeted while watching his mistreatment.) The complication Heimer brought to Feste was a welcome addition as well; handsome and gifted with a beautiful voice, his role in the demise of Malvolio was an uncomfortable fact that was all too easily forgotten as he played and sang the play’s final song. In the text the song focuses on the problems of the play, but when performed by Heimer, it seemed a triumphant sendoff to the audience given Feste’s intriguing combination of likability and moral infirmity, the production’s strong emphasis on his role as an entertainer overshadowed this conflict, potentially neutralizing one of the most interesting discussions that can arise from “Twelfth Night.”

For the Shakespeare buffs in the audience, these two performers offered nuanced takes on controversial characters, and left audience members with something to debate on the ride home.

Still, though the performances were unexpectedly well done, the presentation of Shakespeare in a small park can put off those of us more comfortable in indoor theaters. Though it was an unfamiliar setting, I do not believe I’ve ever engaged so actively with a Shakespeare production before. After all, isn’t this how Shakespeare was meant to be experienced? Not in ornate theatres, but in a warm, slightly crowded pit? Is Shakespeare best understood being analyzed in a wood-paneled classroom, or are the Bard’s crude jokes and silly, almost unbelievable plotlines meant to be taken in live, our appreciation rooted not in some pretentious understanding of Elizabethan meter, but in hearty laughs and the enjoyment of a fun, classically comedic plot?

The Elm Shakespeare Company understands that Shakespeare shouldn’t be a divisive figure, and while their use of uncomplicated comedic devices could seem juvenile to some, they are truer to the spirit of Shakespeare’s time than any frilly interpretation might be. By choosing plays that can appeal to a wide audience and directing them in an unpretentious manner, the Elm Shakespeare Company narrows the gap between the Netflix addict and the Shakespeare geek, offering big laughs for children and those new to Shakespeare. It explores interpretations of situations and characters that are thought-provoking, and offers those more committed to engaging with the plays outside of the theater ample material to discuss. They don’t want to make Shakespeare scholars out of us, they just want to keep one of theater’s greatest traditions alive.

Contact Connor szostak at .