Slapstick humor muddles 'Twelfth Night'

New York's Shakespeare Festival is full of big names and over-the-top farce

Among his other admirable qualities, William Shakespeare is a crowd pleaser. Audiences loved his plays 400 years ago, and they still do in the 21st century. Make the acting persuasive, the diction clear, and the seats comfy, and the Bard will sell tickets as reliably as most modern fare.

All of which means you don't have to trick up Shakespeare to make him popular. While there's plenty of room for fresh approaches, the play's the thing, rethought with verbal and visual imagination, that brings out its values without diluting them.

It's too bad the creative team behind the New York Shakespeare Festival's current production of "Twelfth Night," running through Aug. 11 at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, didn't keep this more firmly in mind.

The cast is full of famous names, and the accoutrements are attractive – great scenery, effective lighting, snazzy costumes. But the performances, directed by Brian Kulick, go so aggressively for easy laughs and boisterous hijinks that the play's beauty almost drowns.

As it often does, the festival has gathered a group of TV and movie actors for the main roles. Viola, the shipwrecked twin disguised as a man after washing up on the shores of Illyria, is played by Julia Stiles, whose wide-screen credits include two pictures based on Shakespeare plays ("O" and "10 Things I Hate About You") and a modern-day version of "Hamlet" in which her Ophelia was excellent.

Jimmy Smits, of "NYPD Blue" fame, plays Orsino, the dapper Duke who captures Viola's heart. Kristen Johnston, of "Third Rock From the Sun," plays Maria, the lady in waiting. Christopher Lloyd is Malvolio, the steward nobody likes. Rounding out the clown contingent are Michael Potts as Feste, the jester; Michael Stuhlbarg as Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and Oliver Platt as his friend, Sir Toby Belch.

All these performers show individual and ensemble energy as they rip through this story of love, jealousy, punctured pretension, and a fascination with gender-bending that the Elizabethans shared with our own age.

But energy aside, none of them make much of their roles. The basic problem lies with director Kulick's decision to present this lyrical romance as if it were one of Shakespeare's most over-the-top farces. Episode after episode is played for rip-roaring comedy, often escalating into outright slapstick.

This is defensible if a scene has a burlesque quality to begin with – when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew have drunk too deeply from their copious wineskins, for instance. Even here, though, Kulick and company give as little due to the virtues of moderation as the brain addled characters themselves.

It gets worse when moments of rich emotional complexity are reduced to mere comic confusion, as when the web of disguised identity and burgeoning affection leads to poignant misunderstanding among characters who mean one another no ill. Shakespeare wants us to recognize how hard human relations can be when circumstance separates what we yearn for from what we can actually grasp. What this production sees is another opportunity for characters to shout, run around, and act zany.

The news isn't all bad. Kathryn Meisle is appealing as the countess who falls for Viola. Lloyd is touching as he pores over his bogus love letter. Walt Spangler's scenery is spectacular – the stage is a blue wave with a sunken ship in the middle – and Duncan Sheik's music is fetching as long as nobody tries singing to it.

In all, though, this "Twelfth Night" is a reminder that romantic comedy is different from breakneck farce, and that Shakespeare's multifaceted text doesn't need shots of theatrical adrenaline to please today's crowds.

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