Often in America traditional productions of Shakespeare plays cease after high school and become snazzy reinterpretations designed to reach out to a wider audience or bring Shakespeare up to date: a condensed version, an all-female or all-male cast version, an outer space version, a puppet version, whatever. All the more reason why the Public Theater's excellent productions of Shakespeare in the Park are so valuable, as I was reminded when I went to see its latest offering, Twelfth Night. This traditional, full text production of Twelfth Night is as spirited and engaging as any.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, is a comedy of mistaken identities, surprises in love, a family being reunited — and of course, being a comedy, it ends with weddings galore. The production is set on a lush green stage backed by a green hill dotted with trees. While costumes from the 1820s (a guess on my part) aren't what Shakespeare's players originally wore, the convention of wearing clothes from an older period maintained the traditional feel of the production, as did the plain, versatile set that reminded one of an English summer day. (With the rainy June it has been so far, it was wet like a English summer day as well.)
The music is given an enjoyable prominence rather than being hurried along or edited out. It contributes greatly to the atmosphere of the production, especially its melancholy undertones, which could have been drowned in a sea of words. At the same time, some of the most delightful moments occur when Feste the clown, played by David Pittu, sings along. The singing, along with the unedited text, resulted in a grand three hours of sitting, yet if anything I grew more interested as the play went on rather than more aware of my aching posterior.
The great and historic strength of the Shakespeare in the Park series has always been its actors, and that was the case here. Twelfth Night attracted some notable names to its cast (Anne Hathaway as Viola, Michael Cumpsty as Malvolio, Raúl Esparza as Orsino, Hamish Linklater as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Audra McDonald as Olivia, Jay O. Sanders as Sir Toby Belch, etc.) Yet rather than seeming star-studded, the cast plays together with a most impressive harmony.
No one actor overshadows another. Cumpsty plays Malvolio, a role which could easily be exaggerated, to a tee as a straitlaced comic foil. Anne Hathaway, it turns out, has a delightful singing voice. Audra McDonald can command a stage. There were some line flubs (the night I attended it was still in previews), but it was an amazingly natural and harmonious performance as a whole.
As a whole, too, it should be noted that the experience of seeing the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park series is both long and delightful. Tickets are free. Yep, free. To get them, however, you must wait in line the day of the performance, and sometimes people line up for hours beforehand and still don't get tickets when they are handed out at 1 pm. If you do sit outside in Central Park all morning to get tickets (or enter the virtual line, which I've never had any luck on), then you have to return to the theater at 8 for a three-hour play. That's a long day.
As for the delightful: The Public Theater plays at the Delacorte Theater on the lake at Central Park facing the Castle. My only quibble with the set design is be that you miss the view of the lake that you would have without the raised green hill. But a summer's evening watching a comedy by Shakespeare played by an illustrious cast in the middle of Central Park for free certainly ranks high on my list of delightful things. Sometimes it is refreshing to go back to the basics.
Twelfth Night runs through July 12.