Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ten Things About Twelfth Night

Ignore the program notes. Like all program notes, those of Oskar Eustis have nothing to do with the production you’ll see. This Twelfth Night is not about loss and rejuvenation, it’s about the world going topsy-turvy under your feet. This is because, in this production more than any other I’ve ever seen, the Sir Toby/Maria/Sir Andrew/Malvolio subplot takes total precedence over the main plot. Why? Because

Anne Hathaway is the weakest link on the stage. Her performance is not bad -- it's just not up to the level of everybody else. And it's not a drawback, either. In a strange way, it's a definite asset. Because Hathaway is (you should pardon the expression) playing the straight man to everybody else, her performance exposes the dirty little secret at the heart of this play: it’s not really about Viola. She’s just the rock that shatters the mirror everybody else is staring at whenever they talk to each other. “Sick of self-love” describes not just Malvolio, but EVERYBODY in this play. In a different universe, where Viola gets shipwrecked in Bohemia? Everybody in Illyria will go to their graves without budging an inch from their stubborn positions in Act I, Scene 1, because those crazy twins who can sing both high and low never entered their lives. In terms of this production, this means

The real stars are Jay O. Sanders, Julie White, Hamish Linklater and Michael Cumpsty, whose Malvolio is Shylock-like in its sense of entitlement and wounded rage. But of them all, it’s Sanders who's the star. After winning the acting triple crown by playing the Ghost, the Player King and the Gravedigger in last summer’s Hamlet, he goes 4 for 4 as Sir Toby Belch, ably matched by White’s Maria and Linklater’s scene-stealing Sir Andrew. (The more I see the play, the more I realize that the role of Sir Andrew is the closest thing you’ll ever find to a totally bad-actor-proof part. Steven Segal could gets laughs playing Sir Andrew.) But still:

It’s not the funniest Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen. (That trophy was retired by the 1998 Nicholas Hytner Lincoln Center production with Helen Hunt.) One of the reasons, again, is Hathaway. She acquits herself well, but she tends to skate over the jokes in her part very lightly, when she should take a pause here and there to propel herself into a little pirouette. This is especially rueful because all her jokes are sly little asides to the audience about the fact that she’s really a girl, which means they only work when they’re delivered out into the house. Or at least delivered with a knowing sense that there’s an audience out there to get the joke. And she doesn’t do that. And it doesn’t help that she’s playing opposite

Raul Esparza as Orsino, who does the best he can with the thankless Zeppo part, but you can tell he’d rather be playing Malvolio. Especially in this production. The Sir Toby scenes are so much the heart of the play that when Orsino shows up at the end of the second act, you’re like “Oh yeah -- I remember him -- he’s that guy from the beginning of the play.” Something you do not say when you see

Audra McDonald as Olivia. Talk about epitomizing the whole world-turned-upside-down thing. She goes from stiff-backed widow’s weeds to giggling June bride whites like (duh) a great singer with a four-octave range. There’s a couple of moments she misses in the first half, but after the intermission, every time she walks onstage she’s so electric it’s like she just stuck her finger in a light socket. She gets more laughs out of ad-libbed Ngung-ngung-ngungs than Curly does in any 10 Three Stooges shorts. And speaking of stooges,

I found David Pittu’s Feste to be more arch than amusing, and certainly not as funny as he thought he was being. Maybe it was me, but I got that weird F Murray Abraham vibe I sometimes get when Abraham walks onto a stage saying “You owe me” instead of “Here’s something you’ve never seen before.” Speaking of which, during the last ten minutes of the play,

Director Daniel Sullivan steals two classic bits from the Hytner production, when Orsino mistakes Sebastian for Viola, and when, during Feste’s song, the minor characters are shown leaving Illyria. Not a criticism -- just a note; chalk that one up to me knowing too much to live. In which spirit, I offer up two pieces of advice:

Dear reader: go see it. You will be delighted. You will walk out happy. And if you’re lucky? Like me, even though you’ve seen maybe 20 different versions of this play, you’ll find something new in this production. What new thing did I see? Well, it wasn't really a sight, it was a feeling. (Don't all faint at once now, okay?) Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but it's the first time I have EVER been moved when the twins meet at the end. I thought it was honestly touching. Which made my happiness at the end that perfect, bittersweet, joy-in-departing mix of “Yay!” and “Awww . . .” And (because, y'know, WTF, right?)

Dear Anne Hathaway: play to the audience more. We’re on your side. We're in on the joke. We will laugh, I swear to God. All you have to do is wink our way. Or throw the lines over your shoulder at us. We want to like you. We want to care about Viola. We don't want to be sitting there thinking, "This is okay, but when are the drunk guys coming back?" We want to be laughing at the joke we're in on. And the more we laugh at that joke, the more we'll like you. And vice versa. I keep flashing on Susan Egan's great line as Léonide in the musical Triumph Of Love: “I LOVE me in this!” Viola needs more of that. She needs to feel totally cocky (pun intended), so that when she falls for Orsino, her world gets turned upside-down too. And the best way to do cocky? Play to the audience. And we'll be thinking, "This is okay, but when is Viola coming back?"

1 comment:

Molly Lyons said...

Oh often the problem with productions I have seen...when are the fun ones coming back?
I should tell you about the version I directed......
then there was the one I was in.....
Sounds like someone should have told Anne it was okay to play the camera!! Bless.