by Jared, Concierge
Although English professors are loath to admit it, Shakespeare is a tough sell to modern audiences. For those who can get past the sometimes arcane language of his plays, there is the problem of the overwhelming familiarity many people have with the material. Shakespeare’s plays, especially his more popular ones like the mistaken-identity comedy Twelfth Night, are performed so often that it can be difficult for any new production to stand out.
The latest incarnation of Twelfth Night, currently playing to full houses at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, has decided to draw its inspiration from the staging traditions of Shakespeare’s day. This revival features an all-male cast, just as it would have in Elizabethan England, along with period-appropriate costumes and an intentionally spare production design to match. Yet rather than making the play feel like a stuffy museum piece, these choices have illuminated the text in new and exciting ways, resulting in one of the most hilarious and accessible stagings of Shakespeare I have seen in a long time.
For those who have forgotten their high school English Lit, the heroine of Twelfth Night is Viola, who lost her twin brother at sea and has washed ashore in Illyria. In search of employment, she disguises herself as a young man named Cesario and goes to work for the Duke Orsino. The Duke has fallen madly in love with the Countess Olivia, who is in mourning over the death of her brother and refuses to see any suitors. The Duke sends “Cesario” (really Viola) to woo Olivia in his place, but instead Olivia falls head over heels in love with Cesario/Viola. Shenanigans and hilarity ensue.
One problem I often have with Shakespeare’s comedies is that they never seem particularly funny, often due to the actors focusing so hard on making the poetic text comprehensible to modern ears. This is not a problem here; the actors have such a handle on the language that they are able to color their performances with all kinds of comedic mannerisms and quirks, which snowball into an ever-increasing ridiculousness that will have you doubled-over in laughter. Yet the play is also surprisingly accessible and easy to follow (no mean feat given the layers of mistaken identity and cross-dressing), so that you can actually enjoy the play rather than get caught up in the details of decoding the plot (there is also a helpful synopsis in the program that those unfamiliar with the play may want to read beforehand).
Although he does not have the leading role, the star of this production is undoubtedly two-time Tony-winner Mark Rylance as the grieving Olivia, who gives a performance for the ages. Whereas most actors choose to emphasize Olivia’s regal qualities, Rylance has turned her into an hilariously childish woman prone to temper-tantrums and the hurling of objects. Rylance milks every bit of comedic potential out of this supporting role, from the bizarre shuffling gait of her walk to her incredibly overt flirtation with Cesario/Viola. Rylance’s stunningly physical performance sees him throwing himself (and his gorgeous black gown) on the ground and over furniture, and even wielding a battle-axe in one of the evening’s best sight gags. And while Rylance’s interpretation certainly differs from the norm, it is fully supported by the play’s text and his character’s actions.
Other standouts include Paul Chahidi as Olivia’s devilishly clever handmaiden Maria and Colin Hurley has Olivia’s drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch. Together these two comic masterminds drive the play’s B-plot as they scheme to bring Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (an excellent Stephen Fry) down to size. The Malvolio subplot has always been Twelfth Night’s most overtly funny, and it remains a highlight here, especially once Maria and Toby convince Malvolio that Olivia is secretly in love with him.