For 40 years, the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central Park productions have wavered between serious theater and shallow entertainment, often dependent on star power rather than ensemble performance for success. This year's offering, though surely entertaining, rarely rises above the sight gag level despite the efforts of its stars, TV's Jimmy Smits and Hollywood's Julia Stiles.
Smits plays Orsino, Duke of Illyria, a country where very strange things are going on.
The duke is smitten with Olivia, a countess who would appear to be too busy mourning her brother to accept marriage proposals delivered by the Duke's page, Cesario. Instead, she falls hard for Cesario who is actually Viola, a noblewoman shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast with her identical twin, Sebastian, and disguised as a man to gain employment.
Viola, played by Stiles, is smitten in turn with Orsino, and at the very end of the play wins his heart, as Sebastian manages to win the hand of Olivia. But not before various servants and hangers-on at the courts of the duke and countess have complicated the plot with conspiracies to wed a fool, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to Olivia and to make a fool of Olivia's faithful steward, Malvolio, by convincing him Olivia wants him as her husband.
The story of true loves triumphant over mistaken identity, cross-dressing, and other Shakespearian conceits is strong enough to support an unapologetically silly play like "Twelfth Night," but director Brian Kulick does not trust it to do so. He has attempted to "spruce up" the play by focusing on the rough-and-tumble subplots masterminded by Olivia's drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch.
Sir Toby and his sidekick, Sir Andrew, become the Hardy and Laurel of this production, front and center stage most of the time. There is no end to the slapstick stage business they engage in with Maria, a lady-in-waiting, Feste, a jester, and Fabian, all members of Olivia's household. The stage has been especially designed for their antics.
There is an amazing blue wave, looking like a tsunami in a Japanese print, with a wrecked galleon in its maw. The merrymaking fools in the cast make clowning entrances by sliding down the wave on magic carpets. When they aren't making like surfers, they are rummaging through the galleon and an assortment of trunks for oddments like vegetables, sex toys, and even an imprisoned Malvolio.
Enough already! It's not surprising that Kulick's vaudeville concept of a production abetted by Walter Spangler's set design drains the play of any genuine emotional content and leaves the noble lovers little to do but keep the stage free for the pranksters. The roles of Orsino and Olivia seem, as a result, to have been cut, and Viola is reduced to a wooden character whose unenviable position as an unrequited lover fails to move the audience as it should.
The one actor who is able to bring heartfelt feeling to his small role is David Harbour as the pirate. In this production he is enamored of Sebastian, no matter what Shakespeare intended, and is able to project the torture of unrequited love more ably than Smits or Stiles. Another minor character who hits just the right note is Kristen Johnson (of "Third Rock from the Sun" fame) as Maria, who shows real affection for Sir Toby despite the surface hilarity of their shenanigans.
Also outstanding is Christopher Lloyd as Malvolio, especially hilarious when he holds the stage alone reading with mounting excitement the forged letter in which the countess declares her passion for him. Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg try hard to be funny as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew and often succeed, and Kathryn Meisle is a luminous Olivia. Zach Braff makes a sterling Sebastian, and Michael Potts is suitably enigmatic as a jester too wise for his title.
Smits enjoys himself immensely and speaks his lines with Shakespearian resonance, but does little more than swagger through the role of the duke. Stiles, the star of three Shakespeare-inspired films ("O," "Hamlet," and "10 Things I Hate About You") but still a sophomore at Columbia University, is ill at ease as Viola and obviously needs more stage experience, but she is immensely attractive in a trouser role.
Spangler's set, with the park's trees in the background, comes to brilliant life in the second act when bowers of crimson posies pop out of every stage cranny to vie with the brilliant reds of Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes, which are more Edwardian than Elizabethan. Pop star Duncan Sheik has provided some lovely music for the show, especially for Feste's song, "The Rain It Raineth Every Day," providing a pensive moment in an otherwise flippant production.