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A CurtainUp Review

Twelfth Night
By Les Gutman

In the summer heat and humidity (both of which were in unfortunate abundance the night I saw this production), the idea of Shakespeare in the swimming pool is a lot more appealing than Shakespeare in the Park. Bob Crowley's set for Twelfth Night, about half water, is as close as any production is likely to come to that concept. With a pool, a pond, a moated castle and a shore with piers that disappear into the sea, it's one of the most imaginative, strikingly realized (and wet) sets I've ever seen. This is the high art of set design at its zenith.

If beginning a review with a paean to the set designer seems a bit odd, consider it a warning flag. This is a Twelfth Night the success of which must be measured unconventionally. It is brisk, fluid and inventive. It is also well worth seeing. But not for the most obvious reasons (the ones guaranteeing it a virtual sellout before it started previews).

The show's celebrity star-power is invested in the main plot. Viola (Helen Hunt), surviving a shipwreck, walks ashore at IIllyria, and immediately embarks on a gambit. Dressed as a man, Viola, now Cesario, insinuates him(her)self into the service of Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Paul Rudd). Orsino pines for the love of a neighboring countess, Olivia (Kyra Sedgwick), who, in mourning for the death of her brother, repels his advances. When Cesario undertakes Orsino's bidding and gains admittance to Olivia's chamber, she becomes infatuated with the messenger. Add to the mix that Viola has fallen in love with Orsino and that her identical twin, Sebastian (Rick Stear), thought dead, is also wandering about, and you have the essence of the top layer of Shakespeare's classic comedy.

Ms. Hunt is up to the task, in the sense that she seems comfortable as both Viola and Cesario. She speaks as if she is sitting in the living room of her television sitcom, but her lines are not robbed of their meaning. It is not a robust performance; I suppose it need not be. Some will admire the approach but it will also have its detractors. I'm inclined to be a fence-sitter.

I found Sedgwick's Olivia unpleasantly salacious and ridiculously comic. On further review, I confess it is a reading substantiated by the text, and neither she nor director Nicholas Hytner can truly be chastised for the choice. Like Hunt, her delivery is contemporized, but unlike her, she is not particularly convincing.

I can't help but describe both of them as little more than placeholders, sustaining the action until we can get on to something more memorable. Neither of them seems particularly inspired by Shakespeare's language.

Then there is Paul Rudd. He seems absolutely terrorized by Shakespeare's words. His fear translates into inaccessibility, fulfilling the expectations of those who find the Bard hard to fathom. I suppose the fact that he spends virtually the entire show in varying states of undress is intended to be some sort of divertissement.

The story suspended beneath the surface is populated here not by celebrities but by stars of the New York stage. They could pass unnoticed in a crowd, but theatergoers could easily recognize their delivery with their backs turned. This work, in contrast to the headliners, evinces a passion for mining Twelfth Night to its depths. Some might fault these pros for stealing the show from the Hollywood interlopers, but no one could be sorry about it.

Olivia's drunk uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Brian Murray) and his cohort, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Max Wright), together with Olivia's chamber woman Maria (Amy Hill), commandeer this Night as adroitly as they set their brutal trap for Olivia's steward, Malvolio (Philip Bosco). And they enjoy their enterprise just as much. Aided by terrifically clever touches from Hytner, their work is uniformly delicious.

Murray and Wright render their characters with almost unimaginable insight. Intensely funny, they are nonetheless poignantly complex. Hill is also exceptional, milking every nuance of her absurdly comic take. Bosco seems to be straining slightly as Malvolio; his performance is very good by most standards, but this time not in the stratosphere reached by his colleagues.

The final character of note is the clown, Feste (David Patrick Kelly). It's an important part, both because he is the glue that holds the disparate elements together and because, lest anyone forget, he is the only character who routinely has any sense. Kelly is endearing, more satisfying when he is aiding and abetting the subplot than when he is playing jester to the plot-in-chief.

Feste is also the deliverer of Shakespeare's songs, and here of Jeanine Tesori's music. His warm, folksy handling of this task, like many other aspects of this production, is interesting even if not likely to be universally appreciated. The music itself (quite a big deal -- it has been recorded and released on CD, Tesori's first major project since the well-received Violet) is also a mixed bag. Wandering from vaguely New Age with Eastern influences to slightly pop with African rhythms, I'd be hard pressed to conjure it up, yet I can't say it was ever inappropriate or ineffective.

Catherine Zuber's eclectic costume designs are particularly expressive, and accentuate Crowley's sets. They range from the exotic to the morbid, from the playful to the serious. Olivia's wardrobe, exaggerated and outrageous whether revealing the agony of her mourning or the intensity of her lust, is especially creative. The aesthetics of the final design element, Natasha Katz's lighting, is also exceedingly sophisticated and elegant.

It is easy to shrug off the weaknesses in this production by saying they are consistent with the text. The main characters are by nature a fairly vapid lot, so portraying them with little substance is seemingly justified. But that belies what Twelfth Night can be, and it demeans the heights the play can reach. Happily, none of this production's infirmities can detract from its triumphs.

TWELFTH NIGHT or What You Will 
by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Nicholas Hytner 
with Paul Rudd, Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick, Amy Hill, Brian Murray, Max Wright, David Patrick Kelly, Philip Bosco, Skipp Suddath and 13 others 
Scenic Design: Bob Crowley 
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber 
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz 
Original Music: Jeanine Tesori 
Sound Design: Scott Stauffer 
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street (Columbus/Amsterdam AV) (212) 239 - 6200 
6/19/98-8/30/98; opened 7/16/98 
Reviewed by Les Gutman July 22, 1998

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