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Twelfth Night in Central Park: Worth Risking the Rain?

In terms of sheer depth of talent, the Twelfth Night that opened at the Delacorte Theater last week is probably the closest thing to the Public Theater’s now-legendary production of The Seagull back in the summer of 2001.  But despite countless Tony-winners, TV stars and one blushing recent Oscar-nominee, at the final preview the buzz before curtain was mostly about the rainy weather—and the biggest reaction during the show was when a raccoon unexpectedly ran onto the stage.  Such are the unexpected thrills of live theater in Central Park.

It was daring of the Public to mount Shakespeare’s finest comedy given the strong memories New York audiences have of two imported productions from London earlier this decade (Sam Mendes’ Donmar staging which featured the mesmerizing Malvolio of Simon Russell Beale and Declan Donnellen’s raucous all-male, Russian-language version) not to mention that it’s only been only seven summers since their last Twelfth Night—a meandering production (directed by Brian Kulick) notable less for its star turns (most of all, a dull Julia Stiles) and mainly for its songs set to music by a pre-Spring Awakening Duncan Sheik.

Kulick envisioned the fictional island of Illyria as a futuristic waterslide park; this time round, Sullivan paints a pastoral, 18th century Scotland.  John Lee Beatty’s rolling, green Astroturf brings back memories of the Teletubbies and Jane Greenwood’s costumes seem borrowed from Barry Lyndon (or a life-size game of RISK) but these visual elements never get in the way of Shakespeare’s “midsummer madness.”  On the whole, Daniel Sullivan’s vibrant, verdant staging is both far superior to that earlier production and worthy of comparison to the gold standard of recent Twelfth Nights: the Globe Theater’s original-practices production that toured the US in 2003 but somehow never made it to New York.

The center of that (and really, any) Twelfth Night is Olivia and at the Delacorte she is played by one of the finest actresses to frequent the New York stage.  Audra McDonald is probably known to most Americans as Naomi Bennett on ABC Gray’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice, but among theater people she is known for her commanding stage presence and virtuosity of her acting (not to mention, her four Tony awards).  McDonald seems every inch a noble countess and when she cries out “most wonderful!” at the play’s climax (upon the revelation that her lover, “Cesario,” has a twin) she gets the biggest laugh of the night.

My only quibble is that her sudden, and consuming affection for “Cesario” (in truth, the character of Viola in disguise) feels too broad—it sometimes seems as if she’s drunk a love potion out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  This penchant for easy, sit-com laughter spills over a good portion of this Twelfth Night, as actors too often rely on sing-song falsetto voices to earn laughs, when Shakespeare’s timeless comic lines need only clear, articulate delivery.

That said, the crowd roared after most punchlines.  Luckily, Sullivan directs the physical comedy with a lighter touch—especially the Act III sword-fight which takes on the absurdity of an old Chaplin one-reeler.  Much of this is due to Hamish Linklater’s hilarious turn as the foppish knight Andrew Aguecheek.  Linklater is also best known for his TV work, but he seems to spend most of his time off from “The New Adventures of Old Christine” on stage.  (Last year, he was a promising Hamlet in Sullivan’s ambitious South Coast Production that never made it to Broadway.)  Here he plays Aguecheek as the ineffectual spawn of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno and Tom Hulce’s Amadeus—and almost steals the show.

Raul Esparza, Michael Cumpsty and Julie White are all familiar faces to New York theatergoers, and each is strong in their significant roles (Orsino, Malvolio, and Maria, respectively).  Special note should be taken of Jay O. Sanders’ Toby Belch, a Falstaff-ian role usually played only for crude laughs (as Oliver Platt did here in the last go-round).  Sanders plays him as boorish drunk, to be sure, but gives him a solid grounding in humanity and even a touch (a very small touch) of class.  His is the first Toby I’ve seen that I can believe is actually related to the noble Olivia.

Finally, there is Anne Hathaway, who shares her given name with Shakespeare’s wife, and in her first professional attempt at the Bard, appears to share an instinctual connection with the role of Viola.  In her first scene, Hathaway seems genuinely lost and scared as she washes up on the shores of Illyria.  As she dons male clothing and serves Orsino, she both acts like an impish, Dickensian youth and looks (with her short hair and big, glassy eyes) like a well-dressed boy out of a Gainsborough painting.  Her dusky, expressive voice is helped by amplification (as everyone’s is at the Delacorte) but she elegantly amplifies the basic emotions of the role.  Hathaway’s Viola is not definitive, but it’s lively, engaging and suggests a predilection for the stage.

As in most Public shows in the Park, the acting appears more often to be just learned instead of mastered and the parts are usually greater than the sum.  But acting wise, these parts are genuinely enjoyable and the Celtic music by the indie, folk-rock group Hem nicely meshes with the lush, Scotch-Irish look of the production (the songs were also well sung by David Pittu, as the clown Feste—and Ms. Hathaway too)

As if taking a cue from the Globe, the actors all danced a gig during the final song, which got a big laugh from the crowd on the line: “For the rain it raineth every day.”  Despite the awful weather in New York this June, somehow only one performance has been canceled.  This charmed Twelfth Night runs only until July 12, but it’s not only worth waiting in line for, its worth getting wet for if the rain continues to raineth everyday.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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