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Twelfth Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Twelfth Night
The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Credit what you will: the economic downturn, an ebb in the tides of show business, or even just good old-fashioned luck. But however you justify the heavenly assemblage of actors illuminating The Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, don’t miss them or this mostly miraculous show. It ranks as not only multi-megawatt in terms of talent, but also as some of the best Shakespeare - to say nothing of one of the best versions of this play - that New York has seen in years.

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.

Twelfth Night
Audra McDonald and Anne Hathaway
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Take, for example, Viola (Hathaway). A lovely young woman who washes ashore in the land of Illyria after a shipwreck, convinced her twin brother died in the same tempest, protects herself by dressing as a boy named Cesario - and promptly falls in love with the kindly Duke Orsino (Esparza), who takes her on. Yet her pining never turns her into a weeping willow. The shimmering Hathaway captures both Viola’s content and torment: She lets her pain escape only in occasional words and breaths, but generally suffers with a wide smile and a bright attitude - she's grateful to be alive, and to be with Orsino if in only a limited way.

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.

Twelfth Night
Jay O. Sanders and Julie White
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The real beauty of their work is in how it complements and informs the central romances, especially when it becomes necessary to tie them in with the reappearance of Viola’s brother Sebastian (Sands, in fine form). True, it’s unusual for this play to possess no detectable border between high romance and low comedy, but the story is just as free of grid lines - the action and the focus flow effortlessly, a tribute both to the play itself and Sullivan’s recognition of it as something more than a light outing in need of all the structural help it can get.

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.


Twelfth Night
Through July 12
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
This summer The Public Theater will again offer a limited number of free tickets through a Virtual Line, available at www.publictheater.org. The process will be the same as last year where on the day of a show, users can log on to the virtual line anytime between midnight and 1 p.m. to register for tickets for that evening’s performance. After 1 p.m. that same day, users can log on to see if they have received tickets through the Virtual Line, which they can then claim at the Delacorte Theater Box Office between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. that evening. A valid photo ID is required for all Virtual Line pick-ups at the box office. The Public Theater will also be implementing a Senior Virtual Line this year which functions the same way as the regular virtual line but registrants must be 65 or older to be eligible.
Summer Supporter tickets for TWELFTH NIGHT and THE BACCHAE are available for a tax-deductible contribution of $170. These reserved seats are only available for a limited time to ensure that the highest number of free seats will be available to distribute to the general public on the day of the show. Summer Supporter tickets help to underwrite production expenses. Supporter tickets are available at The Public Theater Box Office at 425 Lafayette Street or online at www.publictheater.org.