By Joe Hurley
TWELFTH NIGHT, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hynter. Stage design by Bob Crowley. Starring Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick and Paul Rudd. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. Through Aug. 30.
Four years ago, when stage designer Bob Crowley, the son of a Cork fireman, accompanied his production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Carousel" from London’s National Theatre to Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, he was thunderstruck at the dimensions of the stage.
Indeed, the Beaumont stage is seldom fully used because of its vast breadth and depth. But it motivated him to create an element for the New York reproduction, a pile of battered carousel horses, which eloquently reminded the audience of the time that had passed since the show’s opening scenes, underscoring the hard times on which the New England carnival ride had fallen, not to mention the great musical’s embattled characters.
Now Crowley and Director Nicholas Hytner are back at the Beaumont with Shakespeare’s final, and ostensibly richest, romantic comedy, "Twelfth Night," and the great Irish designer, probably the finest visual artist currently at work in the world’s theaters, has very clearly brought all his feelings for the largest Lincoln Center playing space to bear on a huge production that is, as things worked out, utterly dominated by its physical elements, for good or ill.
"Twelfth Night," starting with the shipwreck that separates the fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian, abounds with references to water and images of liquidity, and Crowley has taken advantage of them all, creating a world of reflecting pools for the play’s narcissistic young romantics to gaze into, including one sufficiently capacious and inviting that four of the cast’s principals go for a dip in the course of the action.
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Crowley’s eloquent design, so enormous that at times it resembles an especially exotic automobile showroom caught between shipments, features a seemingly endless expanse of oriental carpeting of a brightly reddish hue into which repeated images of purplish-blue peacocks have been woven. Red and yellow flowers, of glaringly artificial provenance, float in the pools.
In the Beaumont stage’s more distant reaches, a network of catwalks arches over a kind of marsh through which several of the plays characters wade and splash now and again, most notably Viola and three of her shipmates, undamaged by the wreck of the vessel on which they had been traveling.
Late in the play, Crowley even manages a magical downpour, with several cast members making their watery way over those catwalks with the help of enormous umbrellas.
The Lincoln Center "Twelfth Night" is the classic example of a production from which the audience emerges whistling the scenery. If Crowley’s dazzling contribution, splashy in every possible sense of the word, has taken the venture prisoner, the reasons are evident, to the point of being inescapable.
One problem with Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, ‘Twelfth Night" very much included, is that the major parts, the roles that carry the plot and are entrusted with the lion’s share of the poetry, are often cast with appealing young actors, often new stars who’ve made a mark in the movies and/or television, performers who are still too inexperienced to succeed in terms of the difficult language.
When the New York Shakespeare Festival did "Twelfth Night" at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park a few summers ago, the Viola was Michelle Pfeiffer, who registered in the open air amphitheater as a kind of beautiful, squeaky mouse.
At the Beaumont, TV and film star Helen Hunt, who played Bianca in the Delacorte’s Wild West adaptation of "The Taming of the Shrew," is the Viola, who, after the first couple of scenes, dresses in male attire and calls herself Cesario in order to travel safely as she acts as emissary between the lovestruck Duke Orsino and the uninterested object of his affections, the noblewoman, Olivia. Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, and, midway through the play, the suddenly reappearing Sebastian form something like a five-sided amatory equation.
In addition to Hunt, fresh from her Academy Award win for "As Good As It Gets," Hytner and Lincoln Center recruited Kyra Sedgwick for Olivia and Paul Rudd for Orsino. Hunt’s Viola is earnest but, distressingly, as collegiate-seeming as her voice is flat, while Rudd, bare-chested for most of the venture, comes across as vain and self-involved as Sedgwick, whose Olivia, supposedly in mourning for seven years for her father and her brother, projects not much more than coarse glee at the thought of exchanging her somber bereavement garb for hot pink harem costumes, complete with bare midriff. As the briefly seen Sebastian, Rick Stear’s primary asset is a reasonable resemblance to Viola’s Cesario, for whom he is often mistaken.
With the lovers so perfunctorily played, the focus shifts to the clowns, Sir Toby Belch, an alcoholic relative of Olivia’s, Malvolio, her devoted steward, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a chum of Sir Toby’s. Played to something approaching perfection by, respectively, Brian Murray, Philip Bosco, and Max Wright, with help from Amy Hill as Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, the comics tend to abscond with whatever portions of this particular "Twelfth Night" haven’t already been appropriated by the shimmering liquefaction of Bob Crowley’s scenic concept, which includes, in addition to all that magic underfoot, a galaxy of little votive lights that descend from the heavens, dozens upon dozens of them, upon command.
Shakespeare set the play in Illyria, which is an ancient name for the Dalmation coast of the former Yugoslavia. Crowley and Hytner, after studying, among other sources, several exhibitions of Eastern Art, with particular emphasis on a collection of Persian miniatures, and, according to the Beaumont’s program materials, an exhibition dedicated to Persian carpets entitled "Flowers Under Foot," and a display of ancient Indian illuminated manuscripts, opted for a "Twelfth Night" of fable and fantasy.
All of those influences are clearly reflected in "Twelfth Night," mainly to positive effect, but one puzzling question hangs unanswered over the production. Having turned toward the East of myth and fairy tale, why didn’t they go all the way and give us an enchanted Shakespearean vision filtered through the sensibilities of the Arabian Nights?
What’s onstage, finally, at the Beaumont, is a decided hybrid, with the Feste of David Patrick Kelly wearing what could pass for rehearsal clothes, and pounding through Crowley’s watery shallows in what appear to be gumboots suitable for a South African gold miner.
As for the comics, they’re decked out, for the most part, as all-purpose British travelers of, perhaps, the 1930s, provided with snap-brimmed Panama hats and battered summer suits somewhat the worse for wear and journeying.
Scholars agree that "Twelfth Night" was probably first performed on Feb. 2, 1602, although a few holdouts think the date may have been a year earlier, possibly at the court of Queen Elizabeth on Jan. 6, 1901, literally Twelfth Night, when the crown was entertaining Don Virginio Orsino, duke of Bracciano. If true, the event would be just one occasion out of many on which Shakespeare adapted his writing to meet a specific need, mainly aimed at accommodating one or another royal patron, Elizabeth being the most significant by far.
From its very first line, "If music be the food of love, play on," until its final scene, "Twelfth Night" lives up to what might be called its dominating idea, namely that the essence of true love springs from unselfish giving. It’s a thought that seems to have eluded the callow, self-absorbed young lovers at the core of Lincoln Center’s, and Cork-born designer Bob Crowley’s, visually ravishing but emotionally sterile new production.