Sunday, June 14, 2009

Theater Review: Twelfth Night

Location: Delacorte Theater, Central Park

Website: Shakespeare in the Park official site

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Raúl Esparza, Audra McDonald, Julie White, Jay O. Sanders, Hamish Linklater, David Pittu, Michael Cumpsty

My Review: The Public Theater kicks off its annual Shakespeare in the Park celebration with one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night. Before attending, my knowledge of this play was limited—a shipwreck, cross-dressing, and many comical errors were all I knew of it—so I was thrilled to be lucky enough to score a pair of tickets through the Public’s virtual line. Especially after spending the better part of last summer trying to get tickets to the production of Hair, but alas to no avail.

As with most of Shakespeare’s works, trying to summarize Twelfth Night in a few sentences is no easy task. Viola washes up on the shores of the pastoral Illyria after surviving a shipwreck, which she believes has killed her twin brother, Sebastian. Not wanting to be a woman wandering about alone in an unfamiliar place, she disguises herself as a boy, calls herself Cesario, and offers herself as a servant to the Duke, Orsino. Orsino pines for the Countess Olivia, who has no interest in his advances, so he sends his new page Cesario to win the lady’s heart for him. Which of course means Olivia falls for Cesario, not knowing he’s really a woman in disguise. And Cesario has fallen for the Duke, but is unsure how to proceed since he thinks she’s a man and she is working in his service. And naturally, Sebastian has actually survived the shipwreck, and is wandering about looking exactly like Viola does in her disguise, which causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings. While all of this is going on, there are plots involving a group of clowns led by Olivia’s perpetually drunken uncle and her scheming maid which are far too complicated to even begin to explain.

Anne Hathaway leads the Shakespeare in the Park cast as Viola/Cesario, and while she is primarily known as a movie actress, she certainly holds her own here (and she must feel the pressure to do so since she shares the same name as Shakespeare’s wife). She actually studied stage acting as a child at the PaperMill Playhouse in New Jersey, but having to perform alongside such Broadway stage veterans as Raúl Esparza and Audra McDonald has to be intimidating. Esparza is Duke Orsino, who is actually only onstage for a handful of scenes, but they manage to find a way to have him sing, which was incredibly gratifying for those of us in the audience who were already familiar with his swoon-worthy voice. McDonald is his unrequited love, Olivia, who is at her hilarious best when blindly throwing herself as the disinterested Cesario; she certainly makes it clear that Olivia is a woman who never takes “no” as an answer.

While Viola, Orsino, and Olivia are commonly acknowledged as the primary parts in Twelfth Night, the bulk of the play belongs to the clowns. Jay O. Sanders plays Olivia’s drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, with all the gusto and bravado you would expect from a truly stupid fat man, which is exactly what Toby Belch is. His constant, and just as stupid, shadow is Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Hamish Linklater as a hilariously fey and cowardly man. Rounding out the trio of mischief makers is Olivia’s maid Maria, played by Julie White, who is no stranger to handling roles of women with a mean streak and a biting tongue. As Malvolio, the steward who falls victim to the tricks of these three, Michael Cumpsty is probably the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in the entire cast, easily making Malvolio both pompous and comically tragic. Rounding out the cast is an ensemble of musicians, led by the cruelly blunt fool Feste, who provide a soundtrack of Irish/Scottish minstrel music throughout the play, creating a perfect Shakespeare evening under the stars.

While this performance of Twelfth Night is well-performed and highly enjoyable, it’s not without its problems, though I’m not sure if that’s the fault of this production or of the Bard himself. Certain scenes lag as they continue to play long after the audience has already figured out what is going on, which makes me wish they hadn’t chosen to adhere so faithfully to Shakespeare’s script. There’s also the Malvolio storyline, in which he winds up falsely imprisoned due to the scheming of Toby, Andrew, and Maria. Once all is revealed, he is left a broken and humiliated man, but it’s all treated as, “Oh well, our prank was all in good fun. This is a comedy after all!” But Malvolio’s humiliation isn’t meant to detract from everyone else’s happily ever after, which they celebrate in spades as the production closes with a joyful song and dance, and love reigns supreme in the end, just as Shakespeare intended it.

Bottom Line: While Shakespeare in the Park is free to attend, getting tickets can be a hassle, unless you relish camping out in Central Park overnight to be at the front of the line the next day. There are precious few things I would be willing to spend the night in the park for, but luckily the Public Theater now offers a small number of tickets daily through a virtual line you can join on their website. Twelfth Night is a lovely production and easily lends itself to being enjoyed in an outdoor theater on a warm summer night. So try your luck on the virtual line, which is how I got my tickets, or if you’re truly devoted, you may want to give the actual line a try, and I will continue to marvel at how some New Yorkers are willing to live like a hobo for a day all in the name of getting something for free.

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