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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Contemporary playwrights are regularly chastised for inventing stories that strain an audience's credulity. Yet here we have one of the most popular of all plays, and a story line that demands an enormous suspension of belief. What distinguishes it is a foundation so rooted in truth that we never pause to question its probability. Twelfth Night is great comedy, arising from tragedies. In Daniel Sullivan's terrific staging, it's an altogether enjoyable way to spend what turned out to be a near-perfect evening. The key to its pleasures can be summed up in one word: balance.
In this telling, the play's deeper and darker threads play second fiddle to the comedy (as one might argue is most apt for Shakespeare in the Park in any event), yet the entirety of the losses from which the play arises, and the romances that spring forth, are manifest throughout. None of this would be possible without an acting ensemble as thoroughly grounded as the one Mr. Sullivan has, almost magically, brought together and then led.
It may seem surprising to hear the constellation of stars in this production referred to as an ensemble, but just as the stars above appear to co-exist effortlessly, so too on this stage. At the center of this cast are the triangle of Orsino (Raúl Esparza), Viola (Anne Hathaway) and Olivia (Audra McDonald). With two major stars of the New York stage and one formidable film star, none of whom have substantial Shakespearean chops, who would have anticipated the nuance and sheer brilliance these three display? Esparza resists the posturing Orsino we so frequently see, substituting a far more human, and therefore meaningful, character. Hathaway manages to transport her impressive film presence to the stage, radiating infectious comic instincts without abandoning the sense of love and loss that defines Viola. McDonald is, well, magnificent; no matter how wonderful she has been before, nothing has topped the honesty and reverberation of her effort here.
In another galaxy, though never in a different orbit, we find another triangle, the comic one of Sir Toby (Jay O. Sanders), Andrew (Haimish Linklater) and Maria (Julie White). They are just as good. Sanders wrings every drop of humor out of his character, without upsetting the overall balance (no mean feat), Linklater creates a hysterically clumsy and inept character in Aguecheek and White translates her memorable persona into a spot-on Maria. Michael Cumsty's officious Malvolio makes an ideal target for their plot.
Casting David Pittu as Feste, the clown who makes the most sense of any character in the play and consistently delivers its truths, is a stroke of genius. Not only does he keep the entire endeavor on course, but he also carries the laboring oar in the singing department, which is here quite substantial. Equally important to this production is the wonderful choice of Hem (described as a symphonic folk-rock band) to supply the music which permeates the show. The musicians, who perform on a variety of particularly interesting instruments, are exceptional: Andrew Crowe on violin, Steve Curtis on guitar, Leslie Harrison on Irish flutes, christopher layer on smallpipes and whistles and Ray Rizzo on percussion.
There is not a weak link in this cast. Most notable among the remainder are Stark Sands as Sebastian, Charles Borland as Antonio, the sea captain who brings Sebastian to Illyria, and Jon Patrick Walker as Fabian.
The design team for this production has also done exceptional work. John Lee Beatty's set design exploits what the park itself has to offer, and seemingly embellishes it by adding his own tree-topped mound of turf onto the Delacorte deck, with just the right hills and valleys to allow Daniel Sullivan to properly tell the story. Jane Greenwood has drawn on what appears to be the late 18th Century for her inspiration, and the result is most effective. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting grows on us as the evening progresses, and finishes with a lovely touch at play's end, and Acme Sound Partners have again done an effective job of delivering the sound elements clearly even in competition with the prevailing flight patterns.
Twelfth Night also depends on its sword play, of both the competent and incompetent variety, and Rick Sordelet stages both well. Mimi Lieber has supplied fine choreography which is employed to great advantage. Special mention should also be made of Tom Watson's wig designs which are used extensively.
When I saw the plan to present Twelfth Night this summer in the park, my initial reaction was why so soon? It seemed like only a few years since it was last offered. Now that I have seen this production, I couldn't be happier with the decision.