Seeing theatre in Central Park is magical under most circumstances. The Delacorte is an intimate space; its horseshoe-shaped house brings the audience in toward the stage, which is small enough that the actors appear close. Behind the set, you can see trees sway in the breeze, and with the best designs, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the scenery leaves off and nature begins.

The Public Theatre takes advantage of the idyllic location and offers a production of Twelfth Night that doesn’t reinterpret the comedy in radical ways, but fulfills its potential with a lovely, funny, sweet evening in which actors and spectators alike seem to revel in one another’s presence under the stars (and the planes flying in and out of Laguardia that hum regularly overhead, their lights like far flung Leikos or Fresnels shining down to help the actors’ way).

Director Dan Sullivan sets the play in a vaguely Edwardian moment, which allows the elevated language to make sense without making the costumes (subtly wrought by Jane Greenwood) intrusively “period.”

John Lee Beatty’s set literalizes the pastoral theme. Instead of furniture, the floor is built up into small hills of various sizes, some planted with trees and some gleefully bare, which allow the actors to slide down or bounce against the faux-grassy surfaces. Given the high camp physicality of the production, those actions are often in evidence. Setting the play in an outdoor world mirrors the outdoor theatre, making its effect even more whimsical and midsummer-esque.

The Public’s is the third production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen this year. In London, a Donmar Warehouse production that moved to the West End set the story in what looked like the belly of a great ship, with huge wooden slats extending the height of the stage. The actors nearly cowered under the arching dark wood, which gave the production a more foreboding tone. Derek Jacobi’s presence as the ridiculous but wronged Malvolio lent the play a peculiarly sad air, despite the antics of Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek.

In the McCarter Theatre Center production I saw last March, Twelfth Night played out against a wide and high white scrim that swept down into a parabolic wooden stage floor that looked like an elegant version of a roller derby rink. The set design featured blood red roses, hung in two dimensional photorealist images and later concretized by hundreds of three-dimensional flowers that fell from the flies and remained on stage for the actors to walk among until the play’s end. The design emblematized the relief and revelry of spring and of love.

But the Public’s outdoor setting and outdoor-inspired scenery did the most to enhance the play’s merriment and melancholy, framing its movement from one emotion to the next as a kind of picaresque, as the characters traveled the set’s green byways. The black stage apron concealed Malvolio’s prison in the second act, and in the first, its imposing steel grate rose up to expel the shipwrecked Viola onto the shores of Illyria in a puff of fog, smoke, and damp. But for the most part, the dark forestage was overshadowed by the set’s calm and playful green and its tall, leafing trees that blended seamlessly with the real arbor the set incorporated.

Emphasizing the comic over the melancholic focused the production squarely on Viola and her turn as Cesario, courting the mourning Olivia for Cesario’s employer, the Duke Orsino. In the McCarter production, Veanna Cox turned in a sublimely funny performance as an awkward, pratfall-prone Olivia, which made her attraction to Cesario—so easily transferred to the properly heterosexual love object Sebastian, when he makes his appearance—less serious, closer to the comic subplot of mischief that Toby, Aguecheek, and Maria play out.

In the Public production, Audra McDonald, though beautiful and wistful as Olivia, plays the character as more conventionally moonstruck over Cesario, whose presence pulls her out of her extended mourning for her brother, as she’s gradually brought back to life by her attraction for Orsino’s young messenger. MacDonald performs a few deft double-takes later in the play, as she begins to sort out the double-vision of Viola and Sebastian. But she’s a rather wan presence against Anne Hathaway’s vitality as Cesario/Viola.

The Public often casts high profile film actors in its summer shows in the park. Hathaway makes a wonderful Viola. Her performance is full of life and energy, but carefully modulated to accommodate Viola’s wistful longing for Orsino. I heard lines in the play that never sounded so pertinent before, thanks to her heartfelt, meaningful delivery. Instead of struggling to project personality and to command a physical presence, as do many transplanted film actors (Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating performance last year in Rachel Getting Married), Hathaway seemed a natural.

Hathaway’s star power brings the production buoyant liveliness, she connects warmly with the rest of the cast. Her relationship with Orsino, played by a slightly campy, appropriately pouty Raul Esparza, develops quickly into easy camaraderie and the attraction that surprises them both, with her consternated that her true sex is hidden, and he distracted by erotic longing for a person he thinks is a boy. The casting winks at itself—Esparza has been out as bisexual for some time—which makes the gendered confusion of his attraction to Cesario that much more fun (and the moment at the end when he reaches for Sebastian’s hand by accident that much more sweet). He and Hathaway seem to share genuine affection; it’s clear that they’re having great fun together onstage.

But then, so is the rest of the cast. McDonald flings herself into her flirtation with Cesario, exuberantly kissing him on the mouth in her desperation to have him. Hathaway reacts with dismay at Olivia’s demonstrativeness, but somehow manages to avoid the homophobia implicit in that reaction. Instead, when the misunderstanding is revealed, she and Olivia/McDonald instantly translate their affections for one another into sisterhood. Olivia gets to have her soul mate as both a man and a woman. The production revels in this abundance of erotics and affection.

In fact, a kind of queerness tinges the whole event, especially in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. Jay Saunders, who’s typically cast in films and television crime dramas as the sober sidekick (he most recently played the lovelorn neighbor lusting after Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road), pulls out all the stops to play the red-faced, alcohol-sodden Toby, a barrel-chested, grizzled companion to the slight, very fey and befuddled Hamish Linklater as Aguecheek.

Linklater performs the most captivating, hilarious version of the hapless suitor of any of the productions I saw this year. In London, Aguecheek’s comedy came mostly from his height—he was a long string bean of an actor who towered over Belch and the others. In the McCarter production, he was played as slightly fey, as well as ridiculous. But here, Linklater perfectly embodies both the character’s physical timidity (despite his sometimes blustery words) and his emotional and intellectual inadequacies, nearly bringing down the house with his delivery and his physical comedy. Just watching him too carefully hook his lank blond hair over his ears provoked laughter, so nicely calibrated and comic were his gestures.

Julie White, as Maria, brought the proceedings a 21st century comic perspective, as each of her line readings and actions seemed of the moment, which only amplified the comedy in the Belch/Aguecheek scenes. Michael Cumpsty dignified the dour Malvolio with his resonant voice and pompous posturing. He affected an appropriately wounded exit after his imprisonment, but his anger didn’t dint the good humor of this production.

This Twelfth Night boasted enough music and lyrics to be a quasi-musical, which the cast sang beautifully. Audra MacDonald’s voice was wasted as Olivia, but Hathaway, who proved her mettle in the impromptu/staged improv with Hugh Jackman at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, showed off a lovely soprano, and seemed as comfortable singing as she was acting. Esparza offered her a stalwart duet partner.

David Pittu, playing a very wry, quick witted, rather understated Feste (which I appreciated, since the character, pushed too far, as he was in the McCarter production, can be tiresome), produced a commanding tenor for his many solos. A band of violin, guitar, Irish Flutes, smallpipes, whistles, and percussion, played by period-costumed musicians who gamely acted as part of the show, accompanied the actors with music composed for the production.

The final song is an ode to performance itself, regardless of what the elements bring. The lyrics about the wind and the rain prompted laughter from the audience, as it drizzled throughout the show on the night I attended (7/11/09). While the real thunderstorms came later that evening, and didn’t delay the production, the actors and the audience commiserated in our mutual dampness. As she ran offstage after the rousing and enthusiastic curtain call, Hathaway flung her arms into the air with the rest of the cast, all of them hooting and hollering, weather be damned, as irrepressible at the end as they were throughout this wonderful production.

The Feminist Spectator

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One Response to Twelfth Night, Central Park

  1. Martha says:

    Nice review. I actually felt Pittu gave the strongest, most resonant performance (I saw show pretty early in the run), and was really taken at Feste’s first comment on Olivia’s grief–which seemed, at least the night I saw it, to frame the rest of the play. Linklater was brilliant, so well-modulated (given his background–mom’s in the Shakespeare biz as well–I wonder what he does to deal with the pressure). And Esparza has actually compared Orsino to “a teenage girl making a mixtape”–that is, in love with the *idea* of a hopeless love. So you nailed that edge of camp he brings to things.

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