Monday, June 29, 2009

Twelfth Night

Welcome to the New York stage, Anne Hathaway. It’s a pleasure to have you. Please come back again often!

The Academy Award-nominated actress is delightful as Viola, Shakespeare’s plucky cross-dressing heroine in the bright and breezy Public Theater production of Twelfth Night, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater through July 12.

Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan brings this romantic comedy of shipwrecked twins, mistaken identity and, of course, love brilliantly to life, making it a sharp contrast to the last two Shakespeare in the Park Twelfth Night productions I saw. Casting a Hollywood star with little stage experience can be fatal, as anyone who saw Julia Roberts’ dreadful Broadway debut several years ago can attest, but Sullivan has discovered a natural in Hathaway. She steals the show away from her Broadway veteran costars, four-time Tony nominee Raúl Esparza as Orsino (in photo left with Hathaway) and four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as Olivia.

I’ve always loved this story of the twins, Viola and Sebastian (Stark Sands), who are washed ashore separately on the mysterious land of Illyria. Each thinking the other is dead, they journey on, finding true love and adventure before their happy unexpected reunion at the end. Unfortunately the 1989 staging starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum was a shipwreck of a production, with egos run amok and little sense of relationship between characters. The 2002 production with Jimmy Smits and Julia Stiles was better, but damned by a huge fiberglass wave that dominated the stage. As soon as we sat down and I glanced at the set I said to my friend Carolyn, “Before this night is over someone is going to slide down that wave.” Little did I dream that every character was going to make his or her entrance down that slide -- every time they appeared. It was an annoying device that got tiresome very fast.

No such problem with John Lee Beatty’s cheery green set of rolling hills and trees. And no problem here with noticeable actor egos, despite the major names involved. There’s an ensemble feeling with all, although the always dependable David Pittu as Feste and Jay O. Sanders as Sir Toby Belch really stand out in their comic roles.

The spirited cast also includes Tony-winning actress Julie White as Maria, Michael Cumpsty as Malvolio, Hamish Linklater as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Herb Foster as Valentine, Kevin Kelly as Sea Captain, Baylen Thomas as Curio and Jon Patrick Walker as Fabian.

Completing the ensemble are Charles Borland, Andrew Crowe, Steve Curtis, Clifton Duncan, David Kenner, Leslie Harrison, Slate Holmgren, Christopher Layer, Robin LeMon, Dorien Makhloghi, Ray Rizzo, Julie Sharbutt and Zach Villa.

A big shout out goes to the singers and musicians who make the charming music a real part of the show. The original score is by the Brooklyn-based folk-rock band Hem, made up of vocalist Sally Ellyson, pianist Dan Messe, and guitarists Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis. I’ve never enjoyed music in a Shakespeare production as much as I did here. Usually the music is incidental, but for a play whose opening line is “If music be the food of love, play on . . ,” it’s nice to have such a lively partnering.

Finally, recognition need to go to Jane Greenwood for her cheery costumes, Peter Kaczorowski for his lighting, Acme Sound Partners for sound design, Rick Sordelet for his fight direction and Mimi Lieber for choreography.

This Twelfth Night is destined to remain forever one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare in the Park productions. I hope you can get in to see it. For the record, we waited about four hours for our tickets, part of the time in the rain and sitting in the mud. It was well worth the wait.

Performances of Twelfth Night are Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are free and are available on the day of the performance (two per person) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 1 p.m., or by entering the Public's online ticketing lottery at

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