Every year, New Yorkers flock to the Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park, The Public Theater’s free summer series in Central Park’s outdoor amphitheater. This year’s Shakespeare offering is Twelfth Night, and the dedicated theatergoers will not be disappointed. Daniel Sullivan’s star-studded production is articulate, seam-splittingly hilarious, and genuinely intimate.
Sullivan has gathered a very skilled group of designers to create a smooth production that seems effortless. As the production begins at dusk, Peter Kaczorowski’s subtle lighting gently washes over the stage, perfectly blending with the fading sunlight as night slips in. John Lee Beatty’s scenic design is enchantingly subtle—an artistic interpretation of the sculpted Park outside of the walls. Hills, with grass-covered stairs and little shelves that serve as seating, give the set dimension and functionality. On tall saplings hang little lanterns to create a thin forest for lovers chasing, drunkards frolicking, and persons transforming. Jane Greenwood’s costume design seems to have a Victorian sentiment about it, but there is no clear time period, making the magic universal rather than chronological. Brooklyn-bred folk-rock band Hem composed the live music that adds a touch of sweet quaintness that is also remarkably catchy.
The play opens with musicians drifting in while Olivia (Audra McDonald) picks flowers, but not even the serenaders, sent by Orsino (Raúl Esparza) to woo her, will sway this hardhearted mourning countess. Poor Orsino: Esparza is a poet whose muse spurns him, which only encourages his pursuit, moodiness, and gestures of love. In a muted gray jacket with tails, cream pants, and black boots, Esparza is noble but dogged in his humbling, degrading devotion to the countess. Interestingly, his most genuine expression of love is not even shown to Olivia. When Feste sings for the court, the Duke mouths the words, then harmonizes to the melancholic, folksy tune. When Viola, disguised as Cesario, begins to sing, she is equally as struck by the force of her emotions. The Duke recognizes his serving man as a compatriot in love’s sickness, also ensnared by love’s trap, but he is oblivious to the obvious.
Of course, we are in on Viola’s (Anne Hathaway) secret, having seen Hathaway recover from one very clever “shipwreck.” Wet and barefoot from the storm, Hathaway is soaked in white undergarments and corset, clutching a blanket for modesty and comfort. She looks out at the audience with wonder and grief, and we are captivated to the end. As Viola, Hathaway is poised, quick-thinking, and well-spoken. Her Cesario is all of these things, but we can also see his character develop as Viola falls in love and transforms within his skin. When dressed as a man, Hathaway is energetic, spontaneous, and emotional. Olivia has good reason to call Cesario saucy and peevish, because he truly is—but endearing and unwittingly charming as well, and Olivia falls hard for this man who is actually a woman.
In their first major scene, McDonald and Hathaway have great repartee, speaking the verse with fresh energy and clarity. The “willow cabin” monologue is bubbling with such emotion that it verges on coherent babble, overwhelming Hathaway to the point of tears that are hastily hidden. McDonald tries to remain in control but finds accidental flirting more fun than mourning. As the play continues, she becomes an impulsive minx, eager to cast off her oppressive wintry thoughts for sexier spring ambition.
But the play is not all moping and sighing over love. Maria (Julie White) and Toby (Jay O. Sanders) laugh at love and its physical nature; they are also quite cuddly and loving in this production, which is unusual but very charming. Sanders’s Toby also shows admiration for Maria’s scheming against Malvolio, indicating he loves her for her brains and body. Sullivan’s production certainly includes the bawdy humor that is ripe in Twelfth Night, but the physical comedy surpasses the punny one-liners to stomach-hurting status. Each actor holds his own with the physicality and timing, but if there is a leader here, it would have to be Hamish Linklater as Sir Andrew. Dressed in a green hat with a yellow feather, yellow striped shirt, and mustard pants, he is too foolish and really naïve to be Olivia’s proper suitor. As the hotheaded coward, Linklater makes his first entrance with bumbling earnestness, only to knock over an urn, kicking ashes everywhere in a very Steve Urkel moment. And it only gets funnier.
David Pittu chooses to play Feste with more melancholy than humor, though he does play word games around Olivia and the others. He is dressed similarly to Sir Andrew, in a foppish hat and crazy patterns, but his artful command of language makes him witty, not foolish. With his dower disposition comes wisdom and a nice singing voice, perfect for the Hem’s folksy arrangements. Michael Cumpsty also brings singular nuances to Malvolio, like playing up his marriage fantasy; gaining an opulent lifestyle; lording rights over Sir Toby, and ravishing Olivia on a regular basis. Not sounding so Puritan, is he? Perhaps because of this emphasis, or Sullivan’s avoidance of a blighting incident for the happy couples at the finale, Malvolio’s ending is less tragic, and more feeble and pitiful.
In the other subplot, Antonio is dressed as a pirate—complete with a bandana, 3-pointed hat, earring, ruffled shirt, and pirate boots—but his flamboyancy is more adventurer than romantically interested in Sebastian. He seems to be in Illyria on a lark with a novice under his wing, rather than endangering himself for his unrequited love. Sebastian (Stark Sands) is an excellent match for Viola, in looks and in character. The twins mourn for each other as though they have truly lost a part of themselves. When they are reunited, they are part of the finale, but they are also sharing twin secrets with a simple whisper or glance. This wonderful production ends with song and dance, laughter tinged with sadness, and even though everybody in New York City will be clamoring for a ticket, it’s worth the wait.
The Public Theatre's production of Twelfth Night plays through July 12 at the Delacorte Theatre in New York City's Central Park. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Visit http://www.publictheatre.org.