This production of Twelfth Night clocks in at nearly three hours, which makes it just about two hours too long. The evening is as dull as a box of dirt and is only brought to life through the most excellent ministrations of Julie White, Michael Cumpsty, Jay O. Sanders and Hamish Linklater.
To be sure, this is a play that requires a lot of work, both by the actors and the audience. The conceit is that a woman dresses as a man and no one notices. This did in fact take place more often than generally known, as it was a womanï¿½s only way, other than joining a convent, of achieving independence. Fine, great, we all got that, and itï¿½s even in the Playbill Synopsis, an addition I always find dismaying as it underscores the idea that we might not understand what is going on. We do, but that doesnï¿½t make it any easier to watch.
Count Orsino (Raul Esparza) is in love with Countess Olivia (Audra McDonald) who does not return his favor. Shipwrecked twins wash up on the shores of this kingdom unaware of each otherï¿½s presence. First we meet Viola who decides to dress like a man and enter Orsinoï¿½s employ. Her first job is to woo the Countess because Orsino has pretty much botched the job. Viola, in disguise as Cesario, conducts said wooing and succeeds so well that to the extent that Olivia falls for her/him. When Sebastian, the other half of the twin team, washes up on the same shore a bit later (Shakespeare is not strong on the passage of time details) there is much mistaking of identity and gnashing of teeth, with the result that Olivia is just as happy with one twin as the other, and Orsino comes to his senses, nabs the boy he favored and gets the gal he can love.
Underneath this is a most wonderful plot where something actually happens. The neï¿½er-do-wells of the land Maria (Julie White), Sir Toby Belch (Jay O. Sanders) and Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater) conspire to take down the Countessï¿½s steward Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty). They do this because they, like the people they serve, seem to have a lot of time on their hands and, unlike the people they serve, have a sense of mischief and adventure. As this is the more interesting of the two plots, we happily follow along.
There is no main plot, however, against which we can hang the antics of the clowns. There is no passion. There is no sex. The text tells us these are people looking for love, which means they looking to get laid. They are looking so hard they will sacrifice requirements like sexual preference and even identity, just so that they get what they must have. Men are attracted to men. Women to women. Servants to lords and ladies and visa versa. All this is in the words, and the actors say the words, but the truth stays beneath the surface so deep you canï¿½t hear it whimper.
Orsinio is bland, Viola is studious, Olivia is jumpy and Sebastian has no clue. Itï¿½s all great mystery how perfectly good actors can be guided to miss the mark over and over again. One gets the feeling that White, Sanders, Linklater and Cumpsty just took the work on themselves and paid little mind to the director.
The tiny set is a mystery as well. Several hillocks of grass that seem only to have been put there so our quartet of clowns could slide down them like children. Nice effect but so what?
And once again, here is another of my shots across the bow of the over use of microphones. Puhleeze. Not only could we not tell who was speaking, the actors had no reason to relate to us, and many of them didnï¿½t. Why project when a whisper can be heard in the last row? Bring back the directional mics, and let the actors reach out to us once again. This is too much like watching a movie ï¿½ and theatre does not a movie make.
Actually, the most interesting part of the whole evening was the arrival of a raccoon who wandered on stage right, ducked under the setï¿½s canopy, turned left again and headed for parts unknown. Smart move. Unlike the production ï¿½ the raccoon knew exactly where it was going.
"this polished staging, expertly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is the most consistently pleasurable the city has seen in at least a decade."
New York Times
"this most wonderful "Night.""
New York Daily News
"the show is hard to dislike -- but it's also hard to love."
New York Post
"a rollicking show"
"Daniel Sullivan's luscious and nutty dreamboat of a production"
"one of the best productions of Twelfth Night I've ever seen."
"hilarious and joyful ï¿½ a terrific evening."
"Sometimes everything just comes together."
"It's hard to imagine a more satisfying staging of the crowd-pleasing romantic comedy"