Slapstick `Twelfth Night' with F. Murray Abraham
New York — Twelfth Night Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wilford Leach. ``What country, friends, is this?'' asks the shipwrecked Viola in the second scene of William Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.''
``This is Illyria, lady,'' replies the captain of the sunken vessel.
And so it is, in a manner of speaking. Shakespeare chose the name of an Adriatic city with a history rooted in antiquity as the setting for this comedy of mistaken identities and love at cross purposes.
Taking his cue from the play's full title, ``Twelfth Night or What You Will,'' director Wilford Leach has given the production a 16th-century, Eastern European touch. Costume designer Lindsay W. Davis has met the challenge with a colorfully exotic wardrobe that turns out to be the most fanciful and picturesque feature of the New York Shakespeare Festival production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Possibly in an effort to offset an evident lack of classical experience among his players, Mr. Leach has settled for a broad, colloquial, low comedy style of playing.
The revival abounds in horseplay, sight gags, and gimmicks. Bob Shaw's neatly efficient scenery (a central stage tower atop a revolving platform) features occasional signs like ``Welcome to Illyria.'' Sir Andrew's horse, Capilet, is heard to neigh offstage. (A critic, perhaps?) And when Malvolio struggles to smile, his painful efforts are accompanied by the amplified creak of a rusty gate. Such are the hey-nonny-nonny features of the Leach approach.
When it comes to the serious business of comedy and the even more delicate business of light romantic comedy, this ``Twelfth Night'' is not equal to the sum of its better parts.
As Malvolio, the admirable F. Murray Abraham (seen in the film ``Amadeus'') projects the fussy aplomb and self-infatuation that make the censorious steward all too susceptible to the cruel trick played on him. Kim Greist's very modest experience has scarcely prepared her for the demands and rewards of Viola. The best that can be said of Miss Greist is that she perseveres. Kathleen Layman doesn't fare much more happily as Olivia, that ``lady of great beauty and fortune'' temporarily smitten with Viola disguised as Cesario.
The comics work hard and energetically to fulfill Leach's notions of ``Twelfth Night.'' Peter MacNicol makes a sunnily silly booby of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. William Duff-Griffin minces through the role of Sir Toby Belch. Tony Azito -- affecting one of the several pseudo-cockney accents encountered in this Illyria -- clobbers Feste out of all recognition.
Other principals include Thomas Gibson (Orsino), Perry Lang (Sebastian, Viola's twin brother), and Meagen Fay (Olivia's serving woman, Maria, who sets the subplot in motion).
The pleasant incidental music and song settings are by Rupert Holmes. Stephen Strawbridge lighted the production, which is scheduled to continue the usual free Central Park performances through July 20. Perhaps this revival should have been retitled, ``Twelfth Night or What You Wilford.''