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Off Broadway


Twelfth Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The image awaiting you upon first entering the Delacorte is a striking one. A vast field of blue - a tidal wave, or maybe an endless horizon - and a shipwreck that has spilled the hold's contents, a number of rugs, into the playing area. From these first few seconds, it seems that this production of Twelfth Night will be one where anything can happen.

But it doesn't take too long for reality to sink in. Though it should be - and it wants to be - equal parts romance and fun, the actors seem to be working awfully hard. Even when the show's actors, frequently on the rugs, slide down the tidal wave, it has a calculated air about it, giving the entire production a sense of planned spontaneity. It doesn't work.

Walt Spangler's set is the one element of this Twelfth Night that can be considered wholly successful. While Duncan Sheik's original music captures some of the magic and frivolity the play should embody, practically everything else is spotty. Brian Kulick, the show's director, seems intent on painting with bright colors and broad strokes instead of getting at the heart of the characters and story. Had he done that, he may have found that the show would speak for itself.

As it is, that's not the case. The exact nature of Kulick's choices is unclear, both to the audience and the actors, a number of whom appear as if they're trapped in another play. Almost none of them, however, are able to find the fun and wonderment in the script - getting through the story seems like one big chore.

It shouldn't have to be that way, as there's much of value in Twelfth Night's story and poetry. While the show's central concern is a love triangle involving Duke Orsino (Jimmy Smits), the shipwrecked Viola (Julia Stiles), and the cautious Olivia (Kathryn Meisle), there should be an overriding sense of romance and self-discovery. That's all missing here.

What remains is a bit on the languorous side. Though highly talented comic actors, Christopher Lloyd as Malvolio and Kristen Johnston as Maria have great difficulty in arousing much more than gentle, rustling laughter out of their romantic comic subplot. Like Stiles and Smits, they work very hard, but seem overly concerned with nearly everything but selling the dialogue. Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg as the comic interlopers who eventually drive the various plot lines together, are much funnier and laid-back, if not much less labored.

Still, despite an unfortunate lack of chemistry among many of the lead actors, there is good to be found here. Meisle's Olivia is meticulously crafted and emotional, equal parts funny and regal, and her scenes stand out as the best in the show. With the help of the likable Zach Braff as Viola's twin brother Sebastian, the production's final scene captures a bit of the energy and theatrical amazement the show should have had from the very beginning.

With the set of ravishing blue and Miguel Angel Huidor's technicolor costumes, this Twelfth Night stands out in the night. It's just unlikely to stand out for long in your mind or heart in the same fashion.

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Public Theatre
Free Shakespeare in Central Park
Twelfth Night
Tuesday through Sunday, through August 11
Pick up free tickets on the day of the performance beginning at 1 pm at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, or from 1 to 3 pm at The Public Theater. Tickets will be distributed in each of the five boroughs on selected dates.
For information call (212) 539-8750