By admin on Jun 26, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
It's not all that difficult to find a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in New York at some point during the course of a year. A few years back BAM had two different productions on their stage within a couple of months of one another, and through this weekend two have been playing simultaneously in the city. The most widely anticipated of these two, Daniel Sullivan's for the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, opened last night, and for anyone who thinks that they might be able to do without another staging of this romantic comedy about mistaken identities, this "Night" is a buoyant delight through and through.
Heading the starry cast that's been assembled for this Free Shakespeare in Central Park production is Anne Hathaway who plays Viola, who's separated from her twin brother by a shipwreck. From the moment that Viola washes up in Illyria (envisioned as rolling manicured green hills and ornamental trees in John Lee Beatty's elegant scenic design), Hathaway's work is marked by not only its graceful intelligence, but also her felicity with Shakespeare's poetry. After Viola's disguised herself as a boy named Cesario and has begun to serve Duke Orsino (an intense, but surprisingly unremarkable, turn from Raul Esparza), Hathway's performance deepens emotionally as she falls in love with the duke and proves to be often very funny, particularly once Olivia (Audra MacDonald) has come to fall in love with Viola in her guise as Cesario.
As Olivia becomes more forward with the young man who's come on Orsino's behalf to express his love, MacDonald's performance – shrewdly muted at the outset – becomes joyfully giddy and schoolgirlish, even as her Jane Austen-like Empire gowns, from designer Jane Greenwood, become increasingly coquettish. Anyone who's ever heard this multi-Tony Award-winning actress sing might imagine the skill with which she delivers the verse of the play; it's breathtakingly musical.
Director Sullivan has not only beautifully calibrated the performances from his two leading ladies, but from a host of actors involved in plots and subplots that unfurl alongside this romantic triangle, which becomes a square once Viola's brother Sebastian (Stark Sands) has stumbled onto the scene. Perhaps most notable is Sullivan's work with the actors playing the boisterous members of Olivia's household: her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (a buffoonish, but dignified, Jay O. Sanders), her gentlewoman Maria (played with understated flair by Julie White), her fool Feste (the always remarkable David Pittu) and the near-idiot suitor who has become a part of her home, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a show-stealing turn from Hamish Linklater). These characters' antics are generally always crowd-pleasers and, and in the hands of these four gifted artists, the plot to gall Olivia's morally self-righteous steward Malvolio (played with Puritanical stolidness by Michael Cumpsty) certainly has its moments of hilarity, but what's more remarkable is how much they seem like a marvelously dysfunctional family. These are people who have lived together for a while and know one another inside out. This sense of unity, ultimately, enriches this "Night" immensely.
Also adding to the script and the production is the gorgeously eclectic score from the songwriting team known as HEM. The songs in the production may use Shakespeare's words and evoke both the Elizabethan era and the early 19th century, but they also have an exceptional contemporary sound – a sort of fusion of country and folk that underscores the play's varied moods marvelously while simultaneously making this theatrical confection seem even lighter and airier.
---- Andy Propst
Twelfth Night continues through July 12 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (entrance at 81st Street and Central Park West; 79th and Fifth Avenue). Tickets are free and are distributed on the day of performance in a variety of ways. For more information, visit www.publictheater.org
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