Thursday, July 2, 2009

Soggy But Not All Wet

Twelfth Night
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Starring Michael Cumpsty, Raul Esparza, Anne Hathaway, Hamish Linklater, Audra McDonald, David Pittu, Jay O. Sanders, Stark Sands, Julie White

Performances from June 10-July 12, 2009
Delacorte Theater, Central Park

Esparza and Hathaway
in Twelfth Night
(photo: Joan Marcus)
In Daniel Sullivan’s perfectly pleasant Central Park production of Twelfth Night (What You Will), Anne Hathaway makes a delightfully enthusiastic Viola, both in her feminine incarnation and in disguise as Cesario, who becomes the unwilling go-between for Duke Orsino in his wooing of the countess Olivia, who immediately falls for the messenger instead of the master.

Hathaway is not an inexperienced stage performer—she starred in an Encores! show some years ago—and even though she hasn't entirely grasped Shakespeare’s poetic language, she speaks in a conversational tone that seems entirely at ease in this magical world of separated twins and mistaken identities, love, loss and eventual reconciliation.

This being a free Shakespeare in the Park production, director Sullivan shortchanges the melancholic, near-tragic aspects in favor of the mostly happy ending. The music performed by onstage group Hem includes the Bard's songs, which are mostly sung by David Pittu, who's an agreeable Feste, Olivia's jester; the repetitive jigs wear out their welcome after three hours, but they complement the good feelings the director is aiming for.

The first-rate physical production also includes Peter Kaczorowski's matchless lighting design, Jane Greenwood's plush costumes and Mimi Lieber's boisterous choreography. But most typifying Sullivan's happy-go-lucky approach is John Lee Beatty’s dazzlingly green set, which looks like a golf course with rolling hills that would give even Tiger Woods fits. The lawn and sprouting miniature trees are certainly eye-catching, but the set is there to allow the maximum amount of pratfalls, both sliding down and climbing up. Summertime Shakespeare begins with the notion that Shakespeare wasn’t funny enough: his puns, double entendres and rapier-like wit need all the help they can get. So, in addition to hillbound physical comedy, Sullivan pointlessly drags out what's already an amusing sword fight between Cesario and his unlikely rival for Olivia, the equally cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Aside from Hathaway, the actors who are playing the romantic half of Twelfth Night are problematic. Raul Esparza is well-spoken but uncomfortable as Orsino, admittedly a difficult role to plausibly pull off; although intelligently conceived, Esparza's prince never meshes with Hathaway’s exuberance. While not a disastrous Olivia, Audra McDonald, whose line readings are just off a beat or two, misses both the poignance and the humor of this young woman who, while grieving for her father, unexpectedly finds love with a mere page. As Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, Stark Sands adequately conveys wide-eyed confusion.

That said, the subplot's comic roles are splendidly enacted, mainly without the extra underlining that unnecessarily plays not only to the last row of the Delacorte Theater but also to the Central Park Reservoir. Julie White's Maria (Olivia's gentlewoman) exudes a pleasingly headstrong disposition, while Jay O. Sanders gives Olivia's drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch an imposingly gregarious personality: could there be a Falstaff in this talented actor’s future? Hamish Linklater, wearing a wig that makes him look like Garth in Wayne’s World, makes Aguecheek dumbly funny. As the target of everyone's ire, Olivia's self-centered steward Malvolio, Michael Cumpsty brilliantly makes loutish, egotistical behavior merrily appalling.

Luckily for everyone this summer, Shakespeare was genius enough to compose a final song about "the rain it raineth every day." Even wet evenings for audiences and actors alike don't dampen their bliss at the end of this eminently likeable Twelfth Night.

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