By Mona Molarsky
Fonte/Source: NY City Life Examiner
Olivia (Audra McDonald) courts Viola (Anne Hathaway)Played on a grassy set designed to look like a park, “Twelfth Night” officially opened the Public Theater’s summer Shakespeare season last night after two weeks of previews. Romping over the green hillocks in antic high spirits, actors Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald and Julie White stole the stage from their male counterparts.
It was a true reversal for a play that usually provides the characters Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek with the biggest laughs. And one perfectly in keeping—or so some might argue—with the theme of sex role reversals and confused identities in Shakespeare’s beloved comedy about a maiden who dresses up as lad and must woo her master’s lady love.
“Cross-Dressing in the Park” is the Public’s theme this year, a slogan emblazoned on posters and t-shirts. Characters in drag, and the confusions they inspire, are a Shakespearean staple. This year more than most, the cross-dressing theme seems to have spilled out of the theater. Or maybe our world has simply spilled more completely onto the stage. Either way, gender-bending is becoming so mainstream it may someday lose the power of outré humor.
Summer Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park has been a beloved New York tradition ever since director-producer Joseph Papp (1921-1991) pushed the city to build the theater in 1961. And if the truth be told, Shakespeare in the Park—as it’s known—is as much about the park and its people as it is about Shakespeare.
Every summer at this time, the city’s dedicated theater lovers and a sprinkling of tourists can be found lining up as early as 6:00 AM and waiting six or seven hours to get free tickets for an evening’s performance. To pass the time, folks listen to music, read books, or play charades and cards. A few even recite their favorite Shakespearean monologues. At meal times, picnic baskets loaded with homemade feasts and bottles of wine are often produced. And when it rains—as it has so often this year—intrepid New Yorkers pop open their umbrellas and wait patiently for the downpour to end.
Since the Delacorte is an open-air theater, Central Park itself—its trees, glacial rocks and even the 1865 Belvedere Castle perched high above—becomes the backdrop for every performance. How amusing, then, to find a stage set that’s made to look like a 19th-century park, complete with grassy knolls, trees, embankments and Victorian street lamps. Not one to let an illusion linger, scenic designer John Lee Beatty has turned up one corner of his green lawn, as if it were the corner of a rug. Just a reminder that this park within The Park is a fake. A deconstructionist touch for deconstructing times.
One of Shakespeare’s most lively comedies, “Twelfth Night” is woven together with music, songs and dance. “If music be the food of love, play on!” are the first words of the play, spoken by Orsino, the Duke of Shakespeare’s imaginary island Illyria.
This summer’s production, directed by the seasoned Daniel Sullivan, makes effective use of 60s-style folk rock, composed by the New York band Hem and performed on guitar, fiddle, tambor, Irish flutes and Scottish pipes and whistles. There are some wonderful, high-spirited country jigs and some pretty, slightly-poppy songs that remind us that “Hair,” the Public Theater’s revival and hit last summer, has moved on to Broadway.
Hathaway, best known for her movie roles in “Rachel Getting Married” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” makes her Shakespearean debut as Viola, the cross-dressing, pun-spinning comic heroine of “Twelfth Night.” Her slim figure and impulsive gestures are just right for this headstrong lady who decides to pass herself off as a boy. Her goal—to serve Orsino (played by Raúl Esparza), the Duke of the island where she’s been shipwrecked—is almost hijacked by numerous romantic misunderstandings. But it’s all Viola’s doing; she’s the one who hatched the plan to begin with.
“Thou shalt present me as an eunuch!” she crisply instructs the captain of the recently-wrecked ship, winning guffaws from the audience the night I attended.
With a name like Anne Hathaway, it was inevitable that she’d try her hand at Shakespeare sooner or later. Happily, she pulls off a charming and very creditable performance.
Singer and actress Audra McDonald plays the Countess Olivia, object of the Duke Orsino’s affections. Olivia, of course, will have none of Orsino—she wouldn’t be a comic Shakespearean woman if she did. She prefers his servant boy (Viola in disguise) and throws herself at him (actually her) at every opportunity.
“Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections with an invisible and subtle stealth,” she marvels, after her first meeting with the trousered Viola. When Viola makes her next entrance, Olivia nearly jumps to greet her.
McDonald plays Olivia-in-love with great comic intensity and abandon. Yet, watching this savvy, 39-year-old act opposite the sapling Hathaway, I couldn’t help feeling something was off. Shakespeare loves to make fools of his mismatched couples. But there is no way to believe the bounteous McDonald would waste a minute of her time on this callow youth. And if her erotic impulses were indeed so directed, she’d surely have the wit to make her advances more discrete.
With her obvious worldliness, McDonald would be better off singing Kurt Weil, or getting under the skin of Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth. The ideal Olivia needs to be younger, less experienced and most of all … clueless.
As the tart-tongued and mischievous Maria, Julie White lights up the stage during every one of her too-few scenes. Maria is Olivia’s servant and a companion to the always-drunken Toby Belch. While Toby’s sprawled on an embankment, downing barrels of ale with his sidekick Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, a homespun wit and verbal instigator, plans to make a fool of her nemesis, the puritanical and self-important servant Malvolio.
“I will drop in his way some obscure epistle of love, wherein by the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the esspressure of his eye, forehead and complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated,” she gleefully tells Toby and his gang. They are ever-willing to play along.
The scenes where Maria, Toby and their crew trick the morose Malvolio into wearing yellow stockings and crossed garters can be some of the most hilarious in all comedy. Sitting in a dilapidated room in Chelsea for an off-off Broadway production of “Twelfth Night,” with a cast of unknowns, I once laughed at poor Malvolio until my sides ached.
But Michael Cumpsty, who plays Malvolio with a straight-ahead intensity, barely caused me to chuckle when he appeared in lumpy yellow stockings and intoned the ridiculous lines, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
The usually riotous characters Toby Belch (Jay O. Sanders) and Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater) also stirred up less hilarity than I hoped. Too bad, since their bumptious antics offer a platform most comedic actors would die for. It seems director Daniel Sullivan is so enamored with his gender-bending ladies that he’s neglected the rest of the cast and the best of the comedy.
If I ever thought the Bard’s play was so brilliantly written no performers could fail it, I now see the script is as dependent on the troupe as any other. “Twelfth Night” is a tricky soufflé that needs astute casting, inspired acting and precise timing in order to rise.
Yet there’s something about Shakespeare in the Park that’s inspiring and somehow always bigger than the sum of its performances. Maybe it’s the sociable, die-hard New Yorkers who return year after year and can recite cast lists the way other Americans recite baseball scores.
“We lined up at 3:30 in the morning once,” a man seated next to me said. “That was in 1976 to see Meryl Streep in ‘Measure for Measure.’”
“And we were watching ‘Three Penny Opera’ when the power failed—right in the middle of the ‘Pirate Jenny’ song,” his wife chimed in. “That was the 1977 blackout. It was glorious!”
Or maybe it’s the exciting knowledge that in Central Park—no matter how well-oiled and tightly rehearsed the production—the uncontrollable and serendipitous can always happen. Airplanes may rumble overhead, mosquitos may buzz around your ears.
Last Sunday night, I sat in a downpour with hundreds of other ticket holders, huddled under umbrellas in the Delacorte Theater, waiting and hoping the show would not be cancelled. At 8:45, the three leading ladies appeared—also under umbrellas—to announce that the show would not go on and the audience filed out into the darkness. Amazingly enough, everyone still seemed in a cheerful mood.
“Orsino wants to marry Olivia. But Olivia loves his servant,” a father, walking under a black umbrella, summarized for his two pre-teen daughters, dressed in yellow ponchos. “We’ll try again next weekend,” I heard him promise.
Three days later, I was back at the Delacorte with my trusty collapsible umbrella. Mercifully, that night the clouds parted and the show started almost on time. And, just after 11:00, when a spirited cast brought down the figurative curtain singing, “Hey, ho, the wind and the rain!” almost 2000 people applauded loudly before heading home. Many—like me—will be back again before long.
For more information about the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park click here
Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater, Summer 2009
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Mona Molarsky is an Examiner from New York. You can see Mona's articles on Mona's Home Page.