by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Featuring Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza,
Micheal Cumpsty, Jay O. Sanders, Julie White, David Pittu
The Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park

Reviewed by Adasha Greenwood

For the rain it raineth every day. So singeth Feste the Clown (David Pittu), to uproarious laughter from the crowd.

One wonders if someone at the Public Theater had access to a particularly prescient weather almanac when scheduling their opening production of 2009's Shakespeare in the Park. Anyone watching those poor sods (pun intended) at the U.S. Open this past weekend was well aware of New York’s soggy soggy June, and the unfortunate competitors who got the bad (read wetter) side of the draw struggled mightily with their game. Not so the cast of "Twelfth Night" at the Delacorte last Saturday night, every actor well on his/her game, not at all dampened by the luck of the weather draw. And the lovely green of the sod on set designer John Lee Beatty’s gently rolling hills looked even more fairy-tale romantic under the lights (designer Peter Kaczorowski), filtered through the early-evening misting. By the end of the play, as the mist turned to enough of a dousing to cause an extra dry-off break early n the second act, newcomers to Shakespeare might have assumed the final song was an improvisational addition to the play kept on hand in case of nights such as these. But even those who know the play well joined in the (forgive me) deluge of laughter prompted by the famous line, but the laughter was no less genuine than that throughout the preceding two acts.

The Public is honorably fulfilling its original assignment for Shakespeare in the Park: bringing new audiences to understand why Shakespeare is so loved and admired, and keeping the spirit of the work alive for the rest of us, and here they’ve assembled an impeccable team. Director Daniel Sullivan proves, as he always does, that the truest humor comes from the truest acting and that such an approach does not necessarily equate “true” with “reserved.” Truth can be subtle, truth can be outrageous. Sullivan’s cast is clearly having as much fun as the audience, but not at the characters’ expense, and ever faithful to the play. The madness of love infects everyone, but each character expresses, or uses, the madness in his or her own distinct fashion. Audra McDonald's Olivia begins with the expected soberness of the proper lady grieving for her brother, but even then a slightly extended side glance or unexpected physical pause hints at things to come: utter foolishness in the name of a sudden crush and the even more sudden transfer of the crush to a somewhat more masculine translation of her one true love. Raúl Esparza, a proven expert at dramatic and comedic extremes, makes his Orsino as sober as Olivia but with reaches a little less mad, revealing the more subtle chinks in his armor to prime effect.

We’re used to the import of stars of the big or little screen to lure nontheater audiences, but Anne Hathaway has already proven her range as an actress, adding that to the charm and lightness of her early work to make her an enchanting Viola. Her luminous, expressive eyes transfer well to the stage, along with a voice far more theaterworthy than most screen imports. As feminine as she is, her male stance, whether sitting or standing, is graceful and natural and, well, almost believably male.

Michael Cumpsty’s Malvolio, too, finds the core of the role without cartoonishness. He isn’t wrong in berating Jay O. Sanders's drunken Sir Toby, but as the most self-righteous and pompous character, his version of love’s madness goes to the most graphic extremes, and not without legitimate prompting. Malvolio’s imprisonment is always an uncomfortable moment, but his final exit is dignified enough that we needn’t dwell on his misfortune.

But the real revelation in this production is the character of Andrew Aguecheek. He's never been one of my favorites, usually a stiff caricature of a humorless fop, one of the obvious fools who serves as a butt of others' jokes and manipulation. A less interesting, slightly sillier shadow of Malvolio. But in Hamish Linklater's interpretation, Aguecheeck is more an innocent than an idiot, more vulnerable than dense, a choice that brings the low comedy scenes distinctly higher in their humor. Of course Sir Toby’s lines say he is scamming Aguecheek, but Sanders's Toby shows a genuine affection for the awkward lad, making Toby, too, without diminishing his flaws, more easy to like, and more likely in turn to earn the affection of Julie White’s vibrant and lively Maria. One could almost believe him as a (well)paid mentor sincerely training the young man for life.

Lines that could show Andrew as shallow and vain, here betray his genuine insecurity. Toby teases him about his hair, and Andrew’s defense (“But it becomes me well enough, does't not?”) is begging for Toby’s confirmation rather than confirming his own delight in its beauty. Of course we know Andrew is being set up for a fall, and some very funny and skillful falls they prove to be. I'm not a big fan of slapstick, but when the nonsense is performed as skillfully as it is here, the laughter comes easily, with no shame. (Do we credit fight director Rick Sordelet? If not, he still deserves credit for the official fights.) But who would guess that Andrew's line "I was loved once too" would be so moving? Now we wonder about his back-story. Who was his lost love? And when he says, “O, had I but followed the arts!” he is less the deluded fool than the misplaced soul, the son of wealth who was required to follow the family business for which he is sorely ill-suited (here “fencing, dancing and bear-baiting”).

And what would love be without music? I thank the Public for introducing me to Hem, a group whose turn on country/folk/pastoral couldn’t be more perfect for this production. Their settings of the play’s songs (plus the additions of another Shakespeare or contemporaneous poem or two) are gloriously sung by the cast and played (and sometimes danced) by the onstage ensemble (including such exotica as Irish Flutes, Uillean and Scottish Smallpipes, as well as guitar, violin, percussion and whistles), with music wonderfully arranged and supervised by Greg Pliska. I was a bit concerned about the state of the violin when they left their umbrella-ed side chairs for a jaunt with the cast on stage during one of the wetter moments.) Tom Watson’s wigs and Jane Greenwood’s costumes held up surprisingly well. Sometimes I had to look off to the side to see the rain reflected in the lights to convince myself it was in fact still raining. (My poncho was apparently doing its job. For the less well prepared, the Public will sell you a $10 poncho complete with skulls. Obviously a logo related to some other play.)

A radiant production. Perhaps even without the rain.

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