Twelfth Night -- Theater Review

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Assuming you're lucky enough to catch it on a clear night -- a near impossibility during one of the rainiest and gloomiest New York City summers in memory -- you'll have a wonderful time at the Central Park production of "Twelfth Night."

Featuring the sort of starry cast -- including Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald and Raul Esparza -- that would have people lining up for hours even if the show wasn't free, this is a magical rendition that beautifully captures the melancholy and comedic qualities of the Bard's classic.

Anyone who frequents these summer productions knows that they can be really hit or miss, but this "Twelfth Night" hits on just about every level, with director Daniel Sullivan having assembled an eclectic ensemble of performers who mesh beautifully.

As the cross-dressing Viola who discomfortingly finds herself the amorous object of attention by the love-struck Olivia (McDonald), Hathaway is, as usual, absolutely charming, handling the verse with a natural ease and facility belying the fact that this is her professional Shakespearean debut.

Equally terrific are McDonald -- her rapturous delivery of the line, "Most wonderful," at a pivotal point late in the play garners more laughs than any rendition I've ever heard -- and Esparza as the duke who finds himself strangely drawn to his new male page. The fact that this production allows both of these talented performers the opportunity to sing is yet another plus.

The musical interludes, in fact, are among the high points of the show, with the score composed by the indie folk-rock group Hem filled with hauntingly memorable songs.

Productions of Shakespeare's lighter works often suffer from a lack of comic inspiration, but there's no such problem here thanks to the wonderfully farcical and hilarious interplaying of Hamish Linklater ("The New Adventures of Old Christine"), David Pittu and Jay O. Sanders.

Also making valuable contributions are Julie White as Olivia's beleaguered gentlewoman; Stark Sands as Viola's twin brother, Sebastian; and Michael Cumpsty as the pompous Malvolio, whose humiliating comeuppance is one of the most disquieting elements of the work.

Performed on a simple set filled with grassy rolling hills (the better to tumble from) and a naturally atmospheric backdrop that includes the nearby Belvedere Castle, this is a magical "Twelfth Night" that will long linger in your memory.

Venue: Delacorte Theatre, New York (Through July 12)
Presented by the Public Theater
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza, Julie White, Michael Cumpsty, Hamish Linklater, David Pittu, Jay O. Sanders, Charles Borland, Stark Sands
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Composer: Hem
Choreographer: Mimi Lieber
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