Twelfth Night

Shakespeare in the Park, Play

Theatre: Shakespeare in the Park | Company: The Public Theatre

Anne Hathaway and Raul Esparza in Twelfth Night. Photo by Sara Krulwich (NY times)

BOTTOM LINE: Totally worth the wait in line. (Besides, the waiting in line is half the fun and a unique NYC experience.)

I can think of no better way to spend a summer evening in New York City than enjoying a night of free, expertly produced, Shakespeare at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Revered as one of the nation's premier producers of Shakespeare’s works, the Public Theatre continues the tradition this summer with Twelfth Night. In keeping with their practice of garnering a broader audience by using high profile names, Academy Award nominee and one of tinsel town’s young favorites, Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married, The Devil Wears Prada, The Princess Diaries), headlines as Viola. Additional box office pull comes from four-time Tony Award winning actress Audra McDonald (Master Class, A Raisin in the Sun, television’s “Private Practice”) as Olivia, and three-time Tony Award nominee Raul Esparza (Company, Speed The Plow) as Orsino. The cast is littered with even more recognizable names and faces and to my pleasure they are mostly stellar.

Hathaway, while given top billing, is perhaps the weakest link in a platinum chain. That being said however, given the fact that this is her first large-scale stage production and she’s opening with A) Shakespeare and B) a cast chock full of incredibly experienced, many classically trained, award winning stage actors, you simply have to give the girl credit for her gutsiness. The lady’s got balls, pun intended.

Hathaway’s character, Viola, is forced to cross-dress as a man after being shipwrecked, losing her twin brother to the angry sea, and landing on the shores of Illyria. Because the noblewoman of the land Olivia (McDonald) is mourning the loss of her own brother, she refuses to meet any strangers. Therefore, Viola’s only choice is to disguise herself as a young man, named Cesario, and work for the nobleman of the land, Orsino (Esparza), who is busy pining over Olivia. Things get sticky when Viola realizes she has fallen in love with Orsino (who is under the impression that she is a young man) and even stickier when Olivia develops a crush on Viola (disguised as Cesario).

Meanwhile, Olivia’s servant Maria (Julie White, Tony Award winner for The Little Dog Laughed), clown Feste (David Pittu, LoveMusik and The Coast of Utopia), Sir Toby Belch (Jay O. Sanders, Pygmalion and Loose Ends), and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater, The Public’s 2008 summer presentation of Hamlet, TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine), conspire to make Olivia’s straight-laced steward Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty, Sunday in the Park with George) look like a fool.

Seriously, with a cast like this guided by established Broadway director Daniel Sullivan, how can this show go wrong? Okay, I take that back a little. It’s Shakespeare filled with “names” so lots can go wrong...but it doesn’t! This entire ensemble is outstanding. McDonald is fantastic. A more enjoyable Olivia I have never seen. Her nuances, facial expressions, reactions and use of the text are one of a kind. She proves her already award-winning chops in this. Linklater also deserves special mention. His distinctive voice, use of his lanky frame to exhibit superb physical humor, and his comedic prowess are simply expert. Both McDonald and Linklater may have spoiled me for any future Olivias or Aguecheeks.

Stealing the show along with McDonald and Linklater are White, Sanders and Cumpsty. Also, fight director Rick Sordelet (remember him from Theasy’s Caligula review last winter?) shows off some awesome, clever, and exciting fight choreography. Lastly, original music arranged by Greg Pliska provides an opportunity for McDonald, Esparza, and Pittu to showcase their award winning pipes and incidentally, in case you didn’t hear her sing when she recently hosted SNL, Hathaway also has a beautiful singing voice to share with the audience.

Hathaway is charming, attractive, smart, and even though she cries a bit too much for my taste, she holds her own. Even by the end of the performance, she was ten-times stronger than at the beginning. I have full confidence that this actress will grow tenfold again by the time the production closes. What’s wonderful for Hathaway is that she is in such great company, she has no choice but to join their high ranks, and she is a strong enough actress to do so. One of the great things about live theatre is that you, the audience, truly grow right along with the actor(s) on stage and by the end of the show everyone, on stage and off, is just a little bit older and wiser.

If you have never seen Shakespeare performed before this would be an excellent place to start. If you’ve only seen so-so, or bad Shakespeare done before, then it’s high time you wait in line for some free tix.

(Twelfth Night, or What You Will runs now through July 12th. Added performance: July 6
No performance: July 4, Limited ticket distribution: June 16, July 9. The show plays at the Delacorte Theater (located in Central Park at 81st Street) Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm. It is approximately 3 hours with one 15 min. intermission. For tickets, wait in line at the Delacorte Theater or register at Arrive early!)