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Theater Review: Say What You Will About Twelfth Night and Richard III

Shakespeare in asylums and abattoirs is so 2012. I may cry if faced again with Othello in Afghanistan, or Romeo in leather, or any Henry in a Soviet regime. Outré reimaginings of the sacred texts have so overwhelmed our stages that plain modern settings, like the Santa Monica of Joss Whedon’s recent Much Ado About Nothing, seem eye-opening in their neutrality. How much more revealing, and wonderfully disorienting, to experience the plays as scholars think their original audiences, 400 years ago, might have done. Of course, you can easily get that experience in London, at Shakespeare’s Globe, which since 1997 has offered Elizabethan-style stagings in a facsimile of the original theater on a site not far from where it once stood. But to be offered this opportunity on Broadway, with all the richness and star quality that implies, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So gallop, don’t trot, to the Globe’s repertory production of Twelfth Night and Richard III, with a company largely imported from England and headed by Mark Rylance. Each play is valuable in itself, but there is a reason, aside from expected popularity, that Twelfth Night is generally being offered six times a week and Richard only twice. Richard, as presented here, is a compelling curiosity; Twelfth Night is sublime.

Partly this has to do with the plays themselves. Richard as written is a misshapen penny dreadful, less an indictment of power per se than a case study in one would-be ruler’s perversity. Twelfth Night, on the other hand, is an aerodynamic romp built on universal truths about love and vanity. It’s a better script. Still, there have been good Richards in the past, and dull Twelfth Nights, so part of the difference between them here is in how they interact with the “original practices” concept.

Which is what, exactly? As you enter the Belasco, the most beautiful and fitting theater imaginable for this engagement, you get the idea immediately. Designer Jenny Tiramani has retrofitted the stage to re-create the kind of college refectory where the plays were sometimes performed in Shakespeare’s day. A heavily paneled pale oak wall lines the back, with a musicians’ gallery overhead, and six chandeliers dripping wax. (It looks a bit like an Upper West Side lobby.) On the right and left sides, a pair of “standings” — bi-level bleachers, also historically accurate, except for the $27-to-$137 seats — accommodates 52 playgoers who presumably don’t mind being watched as they watch. The cast, meanwhile, is onstage long before the action begins, in partial makeup and authentic dishabille; come early to see dressers help them into Tiramani’s exquisite costumes, which have been created using period materials and methods. (No zippers or Velcro, just pins and hooks and miles of silk-covered buttons.) It’s a fascinating lesson, even if you’re not the kind of person who has spent time wondering what a farthingale is.

It’s also preparation for the artificiality of the performance style to come. All the actors are being transformed; it’s just that for some of them this means transforming into women. With their whiteface, elevated eyebrows, and silk wigs like yarn mops, they don’t necessarily look very womanly to modern eyes. It’s enough that they look different from the actors playing men, and that they move perforce like a different species entirely. When in Twelfth Night Rylance first enters as Olivia — the noblewoman in such deep mourning for her brother that she cannot tolerate the wooing of handsome Duke Orsino — her quick, mincing steps beneath a huge black gown lend her the appearance of a Geisha hovercraft. You immediately perceive how difficult it would be for any man to touch such a woman; he could hardly get at her. And yet her saucy maid, Maria (Paul Chahidi, magically cantilevered to produce an awesome bosom), manages to seem quite available. Even given the restrictions of their garments, these men run the gamut of styles of womanhood from A to double-D.

Illuminating as this is — especially in Twelfth Night, whose plot already depends heavily on cross-dressing — we can’t have the experience that Shakespeare’s audience did. When we hear the musicians in the gallery play their Baroque instruments, their sour shawms and blatty sackbuts, we are using ears that have been altered by all the new sounds we have heard in the meantime. Similarly, having experienced such radical changes in the expression of gender and sexual orientation in the intervening centuries, we cannot know what it meant to Elizabethans to have men play women. And so, when Viola disguises herself as Cesario in order to be near the marvelous Orsino, we are aware of an extra fold in the gender mille-feuille: a man is playing a woman disguised as a man.

As this dynamic takes prominence midway through the first half, the opportunities of period authenticity as a modern experience emerge. Orsino is clearly falling in love with Cesario but cannot process (as we might say today) the psychic dissonance. The lovely “Come Away, Death” scene, in which he has his clown sing a song that “dallies with the innocence of love,” is beautifully staged (by director Tim Carroll) to focus our attention on his unmasterable attraction; he all but yawns to get his arm around the boy. The sexual tension builds to an explosion of what we would now call homosexual panic. As moderns, we can read this moment with double vision, or as a palimpsest: funny once, though now something more.

This is typical of the way the Globe’s methods enhance the experience of Twelfth Night. But it would be an excellent production anyway. It is (like Richard) beautifully spoken and perfectly audible throughout the theater without a single microphone. With so little in the way of trickery to fall back on, the actors’ choices are especially clear and sometimes novel. Samuel Barnett (one of the History Boys on Broadway) is a touching Viola and a game Cesario; Liam Brennan makes Orsino’s melancholy unusually manly; Angus Wright’s Aguecheek is somehow dignified in his imbecility. And Stephen Fry, in his first Broadway appearance, makes a smart and original case for Malvolio. Usually a grotesque prig and egomaniac, he is here nothing much worse than a stuffy manager-type; it is only the vicious baiting of the court rowdies that exposes his repressed self-delight and gaudy inner fop.

Then, of course, there’s Rylance, whom we should not be surprised to find a superb comedian. His slightly manic but fresh way with verse makes its language feel new and exigent; he’s always doing something with it, usually something funny and revealing. If Shakespeare writes, blandly enough, “Give me my veil: come, throw it o’er my face,” Rylance finds in the line the desperation of a woman needing to conceal herself from a “very well-favoured” visitor. “THROW it o’er my face!” he shrieks. The grieving Olivia, of all characters, thus becomes, in Rylance’s performance, the comic engine of the play.

Rylance is also the comic engine of Richard III, but the success of that unusual choice is more equivocal. Certainly Richard is amused by his own depravity; after murdering Lady Anne’s husband and father, and prettily getting her to marry him anyway, he instantly gloats: “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” But Rylance takes from such cues an idea of Richard as a grotesque glad-hander, an audience whisperer of Al Jolson proportions. He grubs for laughter, plays up his self-pitying streak as a ruse we are all in on. He’s perfectly happy to pimp his deformity, here rendered as a slightly warped leg and a tiny withered hand hanging from a palsied wrist like a brace of deflated balloons. You may think of Kristen Wiig’s demented Dooneese Boylan character.

One result of this vaudeville turn is that the gravity of Richard’s deeds is often flattened by his charismatic self-presentation. When he orders the death of Prince Edward and the Duke of York, two little boys who threaten his legitimacy, you feel no horror. But then horror as we now understand it is not apparently part of “original practice.” The head of Hastings, severed from the rest of that Lord, is merely a mannequin part, a toy; the ghosts in Richard’s nightmare look in their winding sheets about as threatening as ears of white corn. There isn’t even any blood shed in the climactic swordfight: Richmond daintily threads his sword between plates of Richard’s armor as if he were lacing poultry. 

It’s a great thing that the production abjures clichés. I was particularly happy to escape the recently standard interpretation of Richard as a Hitler prototype, as seen in the 2012 production starring Kevin Spacey that was sometimes referred to as Scream III. But the idiosyncratic choices made instead sometimes seem random or unmoored. To demonstrate Richard’s increasing madness, Rylance does things like suck Lady Anne’s fingers, whether trying to revive or eat her we cannot say. At another point he wipes the sweat off of an assassin’s bald head and licks it. Is he sodium-deprived? In emphasizing the character’s grotesqueness instead of his cunning, he robs the play of what little logic it possesses. (Why does anyone ever believe such an obvious nutcase?) And the Globe style, so invigorating to Twelfth Night, enervates Richard III. It does not allow Shakespeare’s longueurs to be finessed with distracting stagecraft or, for that matter, judicious trimming. With the houselights left on most of the time, the play is ruthlessly exposed. 

I submit that’s a good thing. We need to strip our idols from time to time, and see them plain. They will sometimes thrill us, as this production of Twelfth Night does, with their innate strength, or engross us, like Richard III, with their perplexities. Either way, how much better off we are for the experience, at least as we anticipate our next Hamlet on Mars.

Twelfth Night and Richard III are at the Belasco through February 2.