Sunday, November 10, 2013

A "Night" Full of Laughs, Just as the Bard Intended

Review:  Twelfth Night

Don't let the puzzled expression fool you; Mark Rylance knows exactly what he's doing as Olivia in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

I have a confession: I can't stand Twelfth Night, that perennially popular Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity.  It always strikes me as dreadfully dull and decidedly unfunny in performance, with the only consistently entertaining parts being the B-plot focused on the servants’ attempts to humble the unbearably pompous Malvolio.  I also have a generalized disdain for companies who mount Shakespeare using the original Elizabethan practices, as the all-male casting is usually there to mask the fact the director has nothing new to say about the play.  So when I heard Twelfth Night was being revived on Broadway with an all-male cast, the only thing that seemed remotely interesting to me was the opportunity to see the incredibly gifted Mark Rylance perform onstage once again.

I need not have been so cynical; this latest production of the Bard’s comedy is the finest one I’ve ever seen, and one of the most accessible and interesting Shakespearean productions to grace the New York stage in a long time.  For the uninitiated, the show’s main plot concerns twin brother and sister Viola and Sebastian, who become separated during a great storm at sea.  Each has assumed the other drowned, and for reasons that never fully make sense to me Viola decides that her best course of action is to dress as a boy named Cesario and go work for Duke Orsino.  The Duke is madly in love with the countess Olivia, who is in mourning for her dead brother and will not entertain any of Orsino’s advances.  He sends Cesario/Viola to woo Olivia for him, but the countess find herself far more interested in the well-spoken servant "boy" than the lovelorn Duke.  

This contrivance has always been difficult to swallow, not only because the actress playing Viola almost never makes a convincing man but also because when her twin brother Sebastian reenters the picture the two are constantly confused for one another despite incredibly obvious physical differences.  The beauty of this all-male production is that Viola finally makes a convincing man, and the pale makeup and identical costumes she and Sebastian wear make them virtually indistinguishable physically.  The other characters' confusion is finally credible, yet there are enough context clues and subtle differences in physicality for the audience to be able to figure out who’s who.  Samuel Barnett and Joseph Timm - as Viola and Sebastian, respectively - are both fine actors in rather thankless roles, and Barnett in particular does an admirable job of playing the straight man during the play's increasingly ridiculous situations.

But while Samuel Barnett may technically be playing the lead, this production is all about Mark Rylance’s virtuosic performance as Olivia, a hilariously over-the-top rendition that finds laughs in every line of dialogue and bit of stage business.  Most performers tend to emphasize Olivia’s regal air, given her position as a countess; Rylance completely forgoes that route and has created a supremely vain, vaguely stupid woman-child prone to tantrums and side-splittingly inept flirting.  Two-time Tony-winner Rylance has always been an extremely physical actor, and over the course of the evening he throws himself on the floor, scrambles over furniture, hurls props at his fellow actors, and even wields a battle axe for some of the play’s biggest belly laughs.  Although vastly different from the typical interpretation, Rylance’s performance is entirely supported by the text and his unequaled commitment to the role makes it wholly believable.  It's a shame the part doesn’t allow Rylance doesn’t more stage time, but he milks what he has for everything it's worth.

As Olivia’s handmaiden Maria, Paul Chahidi doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact he is a man in a dress, but he also doesn’t comment on the fact.  He merely reacts naturally to the play’s circumstances, and the honesty of his performance allows you to instantly accept him as Maria and enjoy his gleeful mugging.  Colin Hurley is a riot as the constantly drunk Sir Toby Belch, and with Angus Wright’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek as his partner in crime is responsible for some of the biggest laughs not involving Rylance.  And although the character doesn’t really get a chance to shine until the second act, Stephen Fry makes for a masterful Malvolio, the unsuspecting butt of a particularly cruel but also hilarious joke concocted by Maria and Toby.

The intentionally spartan set design by Jenny Tiramani is a refreshing change of pace from the overly elaborate sets that have become the norm these days, and the decision to use onstage seating as an approximation of the thrust staging seen at Shakespeare’s Globe is a nice touch (and watching said audience members double over in laughter provides added entertainment value).  Tiramani is also responsible for the gorgeous period costumes, whose elaborate detail is visible even from the back of the theatre.  Director Tim Carroll makes excellent use of all of this in his staging, which maintains a brisk pace and keeps the focus squarely on the text and the performers.

Twelfth Night is running in repertory with Richard III, and the idea of this same group of actors tackling an entirely different type of play is intriguing, given that they have so thoroughly nailed the spirit of this whimsical comedy.  As Olivia, Rylance proves once again that he is one of the most gifted, versatile, and hardworking actors of his generation, and he is surrounded by equally capable and appealing performers both young and old.  Whether you love Twelfth Night or can't quite comprehend its enduring popularity, this production will leave you smiling.


  1. I've never been able to see Mark Rylance on stage, but I have seen his phenomenal performance in Bridge Of Spies, for which I think he deservedly won an Oscar for.

    1. If you ever get the chance, jump at it. Even if you end up not caring for the play (the way I didn't care for "Jerusalem"), he is riveting.

    2. Will do. If you haven't seen Bridge Of Spies, give it a watch. Rylance's performance is much more quiet and subtle than the performance you describe here, but he's so good that he steals the show in every scene he's in, even when he's with Tom Hanks.