On some level, this is at least a partial shock. After all, the bigger the names, the greater the chance they’ll, well, act all over each other, potentially with implosive results. To add to the danger, Michael Cumpsty, Raúl Esparza, Anne Hathaway, Hamish Linklater, Audra McDonald, David Pittu, Jay O. Sanders, Stark Sands, and Julie White are all such different types of performers that no sensible mind can envision how they could inhabit a single world. And one created by William Shakespeare, no less, whose works infamously demand such consistency - and squash the egos who don’t agree.
With this cast, under the prodigious direction of Daniel Sullivan, that’s never a worry. These disparate personalities and performing styles don’t just mesh, they blend so seamlessly that you’re never aware of the bevy of star turns unfolding before you. As this is one of Shakespeare’s most diffuse plays, at times almost encouraging these isolated pockets of individualism, this achievement is even more remarkable. Yet there’s no lack of the artists’ singular sparks - it’s just that none is granted more importance than any of the others.
And it’s because of the continual application of this idea that everything works as well as it does. Sullivan has not burdened this play with the weight of the sorrow that taints so many of the characters’ lives - something that routinely sinks any potential fun. Instead, everyone is enterprising, willing and ready to turn the saddest of circumstances into the happiest of new situations. This pays remarkable dividends - not just for the audience, which receives an uncommonly joyful treatment of many sorrowful souls returning to the game of life - but for the characters too: Rarely has this group felt as irrepressibly alive.
This becomes crucial when Orsino asks Viola to deliver a message to the woman he loves, the countess Olivia (McDonald). She’s in the midst of seven years of mourning for her brother, and has vowed to never look at another man. Yet after just a brief encounter with Cesario, she sheds her black mourning robes in favor of grey ones; further exposure coaxes her into brilliant white attire, the promise of love a far more effective remedy for loss than wallowing in grief. As Olivia blossoms, so does McDonald: She’s a statue of cold severity in her earliest scenes, but radiates such vivid warmth (and an enlivening smile) in the discovery of affection that you may briefly feel the sun has made a rare late-night appearance.
Next comes the mocking counterargument. Olivia’s blowsy uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Sanders), conspires with her attendant Maria (White) and a would-be suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Linklater), to make Olivia’s pompous servant, Malvolio (Cumpsty), think Olivia has fallen in love with him. This leads to one of the theatre’s most giddily glaring fashion faux pas, the obligatory swordplay, and an unusually robust amount of laughter as the thrillingly earthy Sanders, the precisely punchy White, the fully foppish Linklater, and the sumptuously unyielding Cumpsty all collide in scene after scene of groundling love play.
An overactive analyzer could draw a correlation with the overall concept. Jane Greenwood’s costumes; the utterly delightful folk music background, and accompaniment for Shakespeare’s timeless lyrics, from the indie group Hem (orchestrated for violin, guitar, Irish flutes, uilleann pipes, and more), and Mimi Lieber’s blissfully bouncy choreography pin the action firmly on the Colonial countryside, when the New World was still very new. Are the characters the first colonies, uniting beneath love and devotion to form the warmly accepting America?
Maybe. But a more satisfying explanation is that, with all these talents working at the top of their form and with no goal of self-promotion, brilliance was the only possible result. How else to explain the presence of Pittu, so ideally cast as Olivia’s clown, Feste, that his blend of grave wit, gravelly buoyancy, and creamy baritone almost seem like the role’s basic requirements? The de facto narrator and coryphaeus, he glues together the action and is its foremost promoter as a melodic chronicle that always develops from Orsino’s often-quoted opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
One doubts that this music is intended to cease anytime soon. That suggestion comes courtesy of the production’s sole discordant note: John Lee Beatty’s set, an ostensibly gorgeous depiction of rolling green hills that uses only half of the stage, leaving ugly expanses of black at the left, right, and front perimeters, and impeding the direct connection between the Delacorte’s playing area and the Park beyond.
Yet the set looks just wide and deep enough to tuck within the frame of a Broadway proscenium. Where Sullivan and Beatty are concerned, coincidences like this don’t go down easily. Not that this Twelfth Night, joining the Off-Broadway revival of Our Town as one of New York’s few must-see plays right now, shouldn’t hit the Main Stem after it concludes its Park run on July 12. Shakespeare this lively and this original deserves to be seen whenever it manifests itself. As the cast sings in the exultant finale, “We’ll strive to please you every day.” This astonishing group is already living up to that promise, and could - and should - carry it on for much longer.