nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 20, 2009
It was only a matter of time before the actress who shares a name with Shakespeare's wife appeared in one of his plays. And what better choice for recent Academy Award nominee Anne Hathaway than to play Viola in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, the Bard's romantic comedy of mistaken identity and cross-dressing? With Hathaway, director Daniel Sullivan has assembled a cast so exciting that it could only be for a limited summer run at the Delacorte. Raul Esparza and Audra McDonald are Orsino and Olivia to Hathaway's Viola; Michael Cumpsty is the puritanical Malvolio; David Pittu is Feste the Clown; Jay O. Sanders and Julie White are the feisty Sir Toby Belch and Maria.
Compared to others I've seen (most recently, Michael Grandage's for the Donmar West End this past winter with Derek Jacobi's Olivier-winning Malvolio), there's nothing particularly special in Sullivan's staging. It's accessible, straightforward, and respectful. While it may not be a Twelfth Night for the ages, it provides for a most enjoyable theatrical experience, the way only a show at the Delacorte Theater can.
This production is a distinctly musical one; good news for a cast that, upon first glance, seems better suited to Peter Mills's Illyria or Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar's Your Own Thing. The New York-based indie folk rock band Hem provides the score, often haunting, played by a quintet of on-stage musicians on instruments like the Scottish smallpipes and bodhrán. A prologue finds the band, at Orsino's request, serenading Olivia and her entourage as she lays flowers on her brother's grave. Her subsequent rejection paves the way for the play's famous first lines, "If music be the food of love, play on..." Pittu's Feste and Jon Patrick Walker's Fabian sing the most, but Esparza, McDonald, and Hathaway all have brief opportunities to showcase their voices.
Sullivan's risklessness with Cumpsty and Esparza is visible in their performances. As a result, Cumpsty's Malviolio is ineffective, drawing neither hatred nor pity. The role, a highlight in many productions, is rendered superfluous. Esparza has some nice moments as Orsino, but nothing is done to make the character look three-dimensional. Even though Orsino is offstage for much of the second half (in this case, Act Two encompasses the play's third, fourth and fifth acts), the character is still rife with inner conflicts (a potential attraction to Viola's male persona Cesario, for example) that go largely unexplored. Their eventual marriage plays more like one of convenience, that she was the only girl left in the room, than anything else. They even manage to use the line "Come, Cesario" to reflect this.
Sir Toby Belch and Maria have the most developed relationship here that I've ever seen, with White almost tackling Sanders with a kiss the first time they're on stage together. They, along with Hamish Linklater's pratfalling Sir Andrew Aguecheek, provide the bulk of the comedy and their scenes, accordingly, are highlights.
For what is essentially her professional theater debut, Hathaway acquits herself well. Her Viola is well thought-out and has very nice chemistry with McDonald's glorious Olivia. Around Cesario, Olivia is a love-struck schoolgirl, amusing, adorable and everything we could possibly want from one of the finest stage actresses of our day. Stark Sands is also quite fine as Viola's thought-to-be-dead brother Sebastian.
Sullivan plants John Lee Beatty's hilly, tree-lined Illyria far away from the audience, creating a proscenium on the Delacorte's half-round thrust. Given that the Delacorte's stage provides so many opportunities, creating a makeshift proscenium is not only a strange choice, but provides for a variety of sightline problems depending on where you're seated. Jane Greenwood's costumes are Napoleon-chic (one can deduce that the play is set at some point in the 1800s). The lighting, by Peter Kaczorowski, is especially nice if you can see the rain bearing down on the stage, as we could at the Saturday evening (6/20) performance.
Kudos must be given to the cast and crew, who valiantly performed in the rain it raineth'ed on Saturday night. The show went on as scheduled, with a brief mopping break in the second half. The look of sheer joy on the faces of the cast during the curtain call, especially the ebullient Hathaway, was a lovely cap to the night.