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'Twelfth Night' starring Anne Hathaway

Where has Anne Hathaway been all our theater lives? OK, we know all about the sizzling movie career, blah, blah. But she takes to the stage in "Twelfth Night" - incredibly, her professional Shakespeare debut - with the intelligence, charm and dazzle of someone who has always belonged right up there.

And she is far from the only allure in Daniel Sullivan's luscious and nutty dreamboat of a production - the sort of sure-handed combination of glitz and grace that Joseph Papp must have imagined for his audacious free Shakespeare in the Park.

Instead of the customary watery set on a mystical island, this story of shipwrecks and mistaken identities unfolds in a 19th century landscape of rolling hillocks carpeted in yummy green lawns (designed by John Lee Beatty) - all the better for expert toppling, flopping and luxuriating amid exceptionally lucid versifying.

Hathaway - in chopped hair and dashing military breeches by Jane Greenwood - is lithe and vocally agile. She seems fresh without stooping to cute in the boy/girl role of Viola/Cesario, the castaway who disguises herself as the eunuch pageboy of lovesick Duke Orsino (played with amusing motor-mouth rhapsodies but a bit too much irony by Raúl Esparza).

Audra McDonald, with her four Tony Awards, suggests again that she may well be able to do anything. In her first major Shakespeare, she shades her usual gravitas with the impulsiveness of a kitten as Olivia, the countess who falls for Hathaway's male drag.

Although the clowns always dominate too much for my taste, Sullivan cast some of New York's very best character actors and gave them lots of room to play. Michael Cumpsty is so amusingly full of himself as the killjoy Malvolio that we feel bad about his punishment. Hamish Linklater - not on the New York stage nearly enough - is irresistible as Andrew Aguecheek, an unpredictable long-boned elf with what Shakespeare calls "dormouse valor."

Julie White seems atypically uneasy as the wench Maria, but Jay O. Sanders as Toby Belch and David Pittu as Feste are grand arguments for Shakespeare with an American accent. Sullivan takes Orsino at his word when he says, "If music be the food of love, play on." This exceptionally musical production has beautiful folky-Elizabethan-Irish-Scottish-doo-wop songs by a group called Hem. Someone, please, ask Hem to write a show.

WHAT "Twelfth Night"

WHERE Delacorte Theater, Central Park

INFO Free on day of performance, publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Magical night - stars, no tricks

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