Shakespeare might be an unexpected advocate of equal marriage rights, but the joyous “Twelfth Night” in Central Park is an enchanting endorsement of love in defiance of convention. It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying staging of the crowd-pleasing romantic comedy than this one orchestrated by director Daniel Sullivan, a superb design team and an impeccable cast assembled around Anne Hathaway, who makes a thoroughly winning and accomplished professional Shakespeare debut. Add in the soul-stirring music of neo-folk ensemble Hem and you have one magical night in Illyria.
A case could be made that this is becoming a golden age for dramatic revivals on the New York stage. The Public’s latest return to a Shakespeare in the Park staple comes on the heels of a season that has seen emotionally resonant investigations of works by Chekhov and Beckett, invigorating new looks at Schiller and Ionesco, adventurous if controversial takes on Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, a blissful reassessment of Alan Ayckbourn, a biting reappraisal of a formerly mishandled Martin McDonagh play and a transcendent interpretation of August Wilson’s richest work.
There’s a bewitching confidence in the creation of mood and atmosphere here that makes Shakespeare’s melancholy comic exploration of the twisty paths and regenerative power of love, in all its mysteriousness and recklessness, truly soar.
The first persuasive note is evident before the play even starts in designer John Lee Beatty’s inviting set, a manicured clearing of grassy hillocks, dusted by flowers and edged by trees; it seems to spring organically out of the leafy green expanses of the park itself. Jane Greenwood’s mostly Regency-era costumes add another revitalizing touch, lifting the comedy out of the early 17th century and into the Jane Austen domain of playfully flaunted social mores and bumpy romantic entanglements.
The wistful compositions, performed by five onstage musicians on pipes, flutes and strings, add further distinctive, cinematic enhancement; this music really is the food of love.
Less like the melodic American folk of Hem’s albums than the Celtic-flavored tunes of art-rock band the Decemberists, the score and songs enrich the play with the heightened emotions of a musical. In particular, the haunting rendition of “Come Away, Death,” led by court clown Feste (David Pittu) and the Duke of Illyria, Orsino (Raul Esparza), is so exquisitely sad you can almost feel the silent swoon rippling through the audience as Viola (Hathaway) falls more deeply in love.
As captivatingly earnest in fresh-faced boy-drag as she is in her brief scenes as a shipwrecked young woman, the appealing Hathaway is surrounded and no doubt fortified by a uniformly excellent company of stage pros.
Esparza’s intense, brooding quality rescues the Duke from his usual stolid presence, pouring obsessive determination into his unrequited love for Olivia (Audra McDonald) and stunned bewilderment into the unexpected depth of his affection for the disguised Viola, whom he believes to be his male page and romantic go-between, Cesario.
McDonald charms in her steep trajectory from bereavement and prickly aloofness to giddy, girlish deliriousness as she loses her head first for Cesario and then unwittingly for Viola’s lost twin brother, Sebastian (Stark Sands). The kiss between the emboldened Olivia and the agonized Viola/Cesario is played to comic perfection.
Sullivan delicately traces the blossoming of love among these characters out of misunderstanding, confusion and tragedy. Emerging from grief for her father and brother, Olivia opens up like a flower, while Viola and Sebastian — for once cast with a reasonable degree of physical verisimilitude — are gently roused from the sorrow of believing one another drowned.
Productions of “Twelfth Night” often teeter between the romance of these primary plot strands and the low comedy of the secondary characters, but Sullivan strikes a beautifully calibrated balance, with help from some expert players.
As Olivia’s rotund uncle Sir Toby Belch, Jay O. Sanders makes a suitably wily and jolly drunkard, sparking off Julie White’s mile-wide mischievous streak as Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, Maria. And in a performance as dexterous in its verbal timing as its physical clowning, Hamish Linklater’s Andrew Aguecheek is a riot — a foppish dimwit with flaxen Joni Mitchell hair and a daffy Robin Hood outfit, his gangly limbs seemingly all operating with a mind of their own.
Aided by Pittu’s deliciously sardonic, all-knowing “fool,” and a larky Jon Patrick Walker as Toby’s sidekick Fabian, this scheming band gives pompous steward Malvolio an uproarious comeuppance. Michael Cumpsty presents that character as a humorless stuffed shirt, making it all the more farcical when he’s duped into parading about in undignified, cross-gartered yellow stockings, with a doltish smile plastered across his face in the misguided hope of pleasing Olivia. But the cruelty of Malvolio’s manipulation into apparent madness is underscored in Cumpsty’s textured performance, echoing the more somber notes of the romances.
Nobody pushes too hard in this cast, which is far more harmoniously unified than is often the case in the Park. The company displays a light, effortless touch even in the shtickiest business and the most ribald of double entendres.
Over almost three hours of pure pleasure, Sullivan maintains a pace that’s steady and sure, both in the fluid speeches and the antic action, notably some very funny swordplay. The production is largely traditional yet unconstrained and buoyantly expressive rather than a slave to its time-honored text. It’s an uplifting surprise that this lovely “Twelfth Night” is every bit as intoxicating an experience as “Hair” was on the same stage last summer.