New York City Theater
My oh my oh my! What a night Public Theater’s production of “Twelfth Night” in Central Park turns out to be: flat-out uproarious, gorgeous to look at, boasting a cast to remember. Under genius Daniel Sullivan’s direction, this is definitely not an instance of stars’ summer slumming but, rather, a fully-fleshed, fully-realized, honest rendering of Shakespeare’s comedy that gets just about everything right.
The production avoids sentimentality, although it doesn’t neglect touches of melancholy. After all, the very first line is the lovesick Duke Orsino’s soulful “If music be the food of love, play on.” These are characters in extremis, playing life and death games with each other. Swordfights, deception, punishment – fit for a tragedy.
Yet, when Sir Toby Belch bellows after too much liquor or Sir Andrew Aguecheek can’t get his sword out of his scabbard or the puritanical Malvolio is tricked into wearing hideous yellow stockings, cross-gartered no less, or Maria goes positively giddy with glee, enchantment races throughout the audience.
Those four characters, along with the pragmatic Fabian and the wise fool, Feste, attend upon Olivia who’s pursued by the pining Orsino. Into their lives comes the shipwrecked Viola who disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, and acts as Orsino’s go-between, entreating Olivia to return the duke’s love-sick favors.
Olivia, mourning her brother and rejecting the duke, shines like a rainbow after a downpour when the disguised Viola appears. This upends Viola, for several reasons: one, she’s really a woman and two, she’s set her cap for none other than Orsino. But all is set right when Sebastian, Viola’s long-lost twin brother, shows up to the relief of both her and Olivia who now has a male mirror image of Cesario.
It’s a typical Shakespearean romp, what with mixed-up lovers, mistaken identity, comic foils. And, yes, there are pratfalls and other shtick to help – some of it purposely hitting below the belt. For once, the clowns are truly funny. But, glory be, the language isn’t slighted. Take two words: “How wonderful,” said by Olivia with such eye-popping astonishment that it brings the house down.
Some past Shakespeare in the Park performances have been less than well spoken. Not here. Director Sullivan makes sure his actors act characters and are not either escapees from an elocution class or willy-nilly concepts. Carefully, deliberately, Sullivan establishes who these people are and what their situation is before letting loose with a fusillade of comedy.
The cast is unstoppable and untoppable. Anne Hathaway’s Viola is intelligent, playful, lovable. Raúl Esparza’s fervent Orsino is a man who drives himself to distraction, while Stark Sands is an attractive, no-nonsense Sebastian. As Sir Toby, Jay O. Sanders is a mountain of joy, with David Pittu a sprightly Feste, Michael Cumpsty a pitiable Malvolio, Julie White a sly Maria and Jon Patrick Walker a tough Fabian.
Although this is ensemble playing at its best, two stand out: Audra McDonald is rich as Olivia, a mourning, bitter woman who becomes coy, then delirious with lust. As Aguecheek, bouncy Hamish Linklater (whom local audiences may remember for his excellent Hamlet at Long Wharf) is a delectable fop, flipping his straw hair, playing dead, becoming hilariously certifiable.
In fact, all the characters are wacky in one way or another, felled by disorders of drink, love and sexual identity. With its Celtic-flavored score by Hem, its park setting, Regency costumes and imaginative lighting, this “Twelfth Night” will cure whatever ails you.
At the end, Feste sings, “Our play is done, and we’ll strive to please you every day.” Please us? He and his cohorts have sent us to theater heaven.
David A. Rosenberg
June 28, 2009