The visit from Shakespeare's Globe is Big-Event Theater at its most deeply satisfying, least hyped-up and prepackaged best. In other words, the fascinating and eye-opening all-male "Richard III" and, especially, "Twelfth Night," presented in repertory in more-or-less authentic Elizabethan style, are centuries and sensibilities away from any suggestion of theme parks, drag shows and Renaissance Faires.
The ostensible justification for these exhilarating productions is, of course, Mark Rylance. The preposterously gifted acting chameleon and showman ran Shakespeare's rebuilt Globe in London for the first decade after its 1996 inception and, not incidentally, has won Tonys for just about every word he has ever uttered on Broadway.
But Rylance, who makes an irresistibly self-possessed yet vulnerable Olivia in "Twelfth Night" and a daringly clownish evil Richard, is just a part -- if an inextricable part -- of this special occasion. The plays begin onstage 15 minutes before curtain, when the excellent actors let us watch their transformation into 16th century men and women. (Women were banned from the wicked stage in Shakespeare's time.)
Musicians entertain on historic instruments, several I know I have never seen before. Two onstage boxes fill up with theatergoers who should prepare to be brought into some action, but not obnoxiously so. It is a very welcoming pre-show, capped with the lighting and rising of chandelier candlesticks.
Then there are the clothes, recreated by designer-costume historian Jenny Tiramani, which time-travel back to men in bloomer puffs, lace ruffs and felt hats that look like thimbles. And the women -- oh, the women -- are in long, intricately structured gowns and topped with hair that appears to be tightly woven, like rugs.
There is no camping, no winking when a man plays a woman who disguises herself as a man. The only concession to impersonation -- and it's an enchanting one -- is the quick, tiny steps that make the women appear to be floating.
Director Tim Carroll stages both on a plain jewelbox of a set. As always, ultimately, the play's the thing. And Shakespeare's language, as well as his meanings, have seldom been as clear.
"Twelfth Night" is the centerpiece that gives the most chances for nuanced sexuality and comic delight. In "Richard," Rylance chooses to play a villain who dissembles as a joking bumpkin, his guileless eyes betrayed by sinister eyebrows. Still, an almost cuddly Richard, despite his creepily effective dead and withered hand, lowers the stakes of the tragedy.
It feels unfair to single individuals from this exuberant company, which morphs seamlessly from the tragedy to the comedy. But Angus Wright amazes as he goes from the dashing Buckingham in "Richard" to a deliriously ridiculous Andrew Aguecheek in "Twelfth Night." Samuel Barnett makes a horrified Elizabeth in "Richard," then gets lyrically feisty as Viola disguises herself as a man in "Twelfth Night."
The ever-formidable Stephen Fry makes such a noble Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" that his humiliation by the clowns seems awfully cruel, while Paul Chahidi turns Maria, Olivia's gentlewoman in "Twelfth Night" into a genuine star turn. If you get there early enough -- and you really should -- you can watch him get into his corset.
WHAT "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III"
WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
INFO $25-$137; 212-239-6200; shakespearebroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Event theater at its best.