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A CurtainUp Review
Richard III and Twelfth Night in Rep

See also, Why You Should Come Early by Elyse Sommer
Also, see Double Your Pleasure. . . a Curtainup feature on this season's in-rep productions by Elyse Sommer

Richard III scene
A scene from Richard III featuring Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Mark Rylance (kneeling)
Mark Rylance
Rylance as Lady Olivia
Mark Rylance
Rylance as Richard III
Mark Rylance is doing it again. He's bowling over New York theater goers with his terrific turn as Lady Olivia in Twelfth Night and his scheming-and non-traditional take on the monster king in Richard III. In a season flooded with Shakespeare productions, you won't want to miss seeing at least one of these all-male productions playing in repertory at the Belasco.

The dual productions got their stage legs at London's Globe Theatre last year and transferred to the Apollo Theatre in the West End. The critics were completely smitten by Rylance's Lady Olivia, and then surrendered to his Richard as well. Still, what flies in London doesn't always pass muster when it crosses the pond doesn't disappointand lands on Broadway.

Well, no worries. The phenomenal Rylance, who's been referred to as the "greatest actor of his generation" as well as the unparalleled interpreter of Shakespeare's works, doesn't disappoint. And while Rylance is the star attraction this is an all-star event with a splendid ensemble superbly directed by Tim Carroll. Contributing mightily to this in-rep production as a real Broadway happening is the handsome wooden set and pre-show dressing ritual of the male actors is a genuine window into Elizabethan culture and its stage techniques. (see Why You Should Come Early by Elyse Sommer for more details).

About Twelfth Night (spelled out as Twelfe Night on the theater marquee and in the program to in keeping with the true to the Elizabethan era casting, scenery and costumes). . .

The women here appear with the white make-up of the onnagata, a female impersonator of the Japanese kabuki theater. This stylized look adds a unique subtlety and ideally suits the characters. For Rylance's Countess Olivia the onnagata, which is supposed to a "paragon of femininity", also visually conveys her authority even before "she" has uttered a single Shakespearean syllable or revealed that she is (obsessively) mourning her brothers' death. Outfitted in a black petticoat, matching veil, and a regal coronet, this is a noble woman who is very conscious of her royal birthright, and proud to a fault. Though this Countess is no classic beauty, she is a piece of work who is determined to get what she wants in Illyria (and ultimately does!)

Rylance's Countess, as well as Paul Chahdi's Maria transport themselves about the stage as if their shoes had roller blades attached to their soles. In Rylance's case, it lends an otherworldly aura to the characters.

You probably know the Twelfth Night story so suffice it to say that the zany characters who populate Illyria (with the exception of Peter Hamilton Dyer's sane Feste) are all infected, more or less, with midsummer madness. And nothing will be disentangled until the delightful denouement of Act 5, when the shipwrecked twins, Viola and Sebastian, become reunited and true love triumphs (Orsino and Viola pair off, as do Sebastian and Olivia).

An especially notable member of the impressive ensemble is the multi-faced Stephen Fry (actor, stage and screen playwright, director, to name just a few hats he's worn) making his Broadway debut as the killjoy Malvolio. Charles Lamb once dubbed the character as the "Don Juan of erotomania" and Fry's portrayal lives up to it with his swagger completely intact. When Fry comes on for his grotesque seductive scene in Act 3, wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings and grinning like the Cheshire Cat, he tugs laughs out of the most reserved audience member.

Other performers deserving mention are Samuel Barnett playing a sensitive Viola/Cesario (more on him in my comments on Richard III), Paul Chahidi as a surprisingly roly-poly but calculating Maria, and Angus Wright as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, rightly ridiculous throughout.

About Richard III (spelled out as King Richard the Third to again underscore the true to the Elizabethan era staging)

While Twelfth Night is a jewel of a show, Richard III has more of a-diamond in-the rough quality. The reason for this is that Rylance takes a decidedly different tack on the villain-hero, emphasizing Richard as a remarkably funny schemer extraordinaire. He may well have rooted his interpretation from a soliloquy in the third part of the Henry VI plays. There Richard surfaces as an insidious personage who "can smile and murthers while I smiles." Remember that old adage: Be careful what you wish for? Well, those words could well underscore Richard's tragedy here! He dreams of being King, and in fulfilling his dream in cold-hearted fashion, sows the very seeds to his own downfall.

T There are also a few notable departures from the text. The character of Queen Margaret is jettisoned. Since she rants on and on in the play, this cut is a good choice as listening to the mad Queen air her grievances (Richard has killed her husband King Henry VI and their young son Edward), however justified, can extend the show's running time.

With the other performers once again outstanding, it's tough and almost unfair to single out any particular one. The two males playing women certainly do a mighty fine job of showing how Richard's personality can wear other characters down into submission. Joseph Timms' Lady Anne who succumbs to Richard's charms of Richard after rudely spitting in his face in Act 1, Scene 2 (Well, he has killed her husband and father-in-law!) comes across as a woman with nothing left to lose. If Rylance's Richard is a crown-grasper, then Timsm's Anne, is a security-seeker (and betrayed all too soon by her double-dealing spouse). The other cross-dressing actor who delivers is Samuel Barnett, the delightful Viola of Twelfth Night is even better as Queen Elizabeth, registering the dignity of the Queen and her real vulnerability to Richard's treachery.

In spite of his slightly left-of-center spin on Richard, I thoroughly savored Rylance's off-beat interpretation, punctuated with a halting stammer and marked by a rather diffident manner. Kevin Spacey's Richard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011 was tinged with more grandeur, and Ian McKellen's 1995 film portrait had more diabolic darkness. But Rylance's Richard with its whiff of eccentricity still rings true to the original.

To see or not to see both. . .

No doubt this is a double treat and ideally you'll be able to see both plays. If going to both would strain your wallet, you can take advantage of the $27 tickets available for both shows (on stage and throughout the balconies). You can also opt for the show that most suits your theater taste: Twelfth Night is a good bet for those who like their Shakespeare at the cutting-edge, with a definite Asian look and feel to boot. It's also the only one in which the above mentioned Stephen Fry appears. Richard III is a more( of an opportunity to see Rylance play the hypocritical Duke of Gloucester, and watch his rise and fall in a maverick style. But, by all means, be among the happy few who can say that they have witnessed the incomparable Mark Rylance performing the Bard on the boards of the Belasco.

And who knows. Come June, when the Tony nominations 2014 come round, the two-time Award-winning Rylance (Boeing Boeing and Jerusalem each won him a statuette) just might be tapped again.

Why You Should Come Early by Elyse Sommer
I always like to get into my seat early, to read the program and any program notes, but even theater goers who tend to arrive as close to curtain time as possible should try to arrive twenty or so minutes ahead of time. You see, the actors go through the fascinating process of getting into their costumes right on stage-- and given the authenticity of the costumes (all hand stitched, and requiring dressers to deal with the pre-velcro and zipper era hooks, eyes, buttons and strings. Since this is an all-male company, you'll actually see the men playing female roles change gender.

Unlike most Playbills, the program for this in-rep production includes some fascinating and enlightening extras: An essay "Striving for Authenticity" which details just what went into these lavish costumes, and what's required to keep them fresh. That same essay also explains the inspiration for the simple but stunning recreation of an oak wood hall and minimal furnishings replicating the aristocrats' great halls and Lawyers' Inns and Universities that served as theaters before the Shakespeare performers had their own theater. The two-tiered boxes at either side of the stage turn thoe taking advantage of this up close bargain priced seating (Just $27-- as are 250 other seats in other sections of the Belasco) into members of the gallery.

The Playbill essay also includes commentary about the musicians and their instruments — the first time Renaissance instruments have been performed live on stage. Just in case this is your first experience with these plays, there's also a handy plot summary of each.

Though each play is a free-standing experience, and you may have planned to see just one, I'll wager that whichever you see first will make buying a ticket for the other irresistible. And you won't be sorry. I've seen both Richard III and Twelfth Night quite a few times, but I've never heard the line delivery as crystal clear. And who would have thought that the psychopathic bottled spider, a.k.a. Richard III, could be this funny.

And in case you didn't get to your seat in time to see the actors getting into all those gorgeous and authentic costumes, you will see Rylance and company end each play with the jig that Rylance made part of all Globe productions during his artistic directorship. l.

Richard III (King Richard the Third) and Twelfth Night (Twelve Night)
Directed by Tim Carroll
Cast: Mark Rylance (Olivia in Twelfth Night/Richard III), Stephen Fry (Malvolio in Twelfth Night), Samuel Barnett (Viola in Twelfth Night - Queen Elizabeth in Richard III; Liam Brennan (Orsino in Twelfth Night- Clarence/Lord Mayor in Richard III), Paul Chahidi (Maria in Twelfth Night - Hastings/Tyrrell in Richard III), John Paul Connolly (Antonio in Twelfth Night - 1st Murderer/Cardinal/Ratcliff/Halberdier in Richard III) Peter Hamilton Dyer (Feste in Twelfth Night - Brakenbury/Catesby in Richard III), Colin Hurley (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night- King Edward IV/Stanley in Richard III), Jethro Skinner (Fabian in Twelfth Night - 2nd Murderer/Mesourssenger/Halberdier in Richard III)
Designed by Jenny Tiramani
Music by Claire van Kampen.
Lighting Design: Stan Pressner
Musicians: Emily Baines (Shawns, Curtal, Rauschpfeife, Recorder, Samuel Budish (Drum, Tambourine, Baroque Timpani), Arngeir Hauksson (Lute, Thorbo, Cittern, Hurdy Gurdy), Priscilla Herrid (Shawns, Curtal, Recorder), Edward Hilton (Tenor Sackbut, Bass Sackbut, Recorder), Greg Ingles (Alto Sackbut, Tenor Sackbut, Natural Trumpet, Recorder), Nicholas Perry ( Shawns, Curtal, Rauschpfeife, Recorders, Pipe and Tabor, Natural Trumpet, Bagpipes)
Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Running Time: Richard III, Two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission; Twelfth Night Three hours, including one intermission
Shakespeare's Globe at the Belasco Theatre 111 West 44th Street
From 10/15/13; opening 11/10/13; closing 2/16/14
Performances: See for a detailed schedule. Tickets:$27 - $137
The productions also offer several rows of on-stage seating for an up close and personal experience (caveat: no back rest and tight leg room for front row); also 250 seats at every performance are set aside to be sold for $25 for the balcony, as well as selected seats in the orchestra, mezzanine, boxes and on stage.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at two pre-opening November 3 and 7th press performances.
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