Grab a lawn chair, beanbag or towel. Just make sure to head to the Public Theater's Delacorte — located in Central Park — and wait in line for some free tickets to this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park, Twelfth Night.
This is not your parents’ Shakespeare. Sure, there are the usual "Shall not beholds" and the oh-so-familiar "know’st thous" scattered throughout the three-hour play, but unlike other productions that stiffly stick with conventional Shakespearean sets, time frames and performances, this is truly a modern staging. This is not to say that you won’t have to digest Shakespearean prose. The script has not been rewritten in modern English; still, director Brian Kulick’s production makes this play as fun and hip as one can without rewriting Shakespeare’s script.
Walt Spangler is responsible for the dramatic scenic design, a huge crystal blue wave that serves as the set for this romantic comedy. Lodged mid-way up this wave is the carcass of a destroyed sailboat. It’s the sinking of this ship that begins Twelfth Night and introduces the audience to the land of Illyria. As a result of this shipwreck, Viola and Sebastian (twins played by Julia Stiles and Zach Braff) are separated and forced to find their ways in Illyria. Viola masquerades as a young boy and finds employment in the court of Duke Orsino, beginning a chain of events that will lead to an unconventional love triangle.
So how did the giant wave of a set come about? In an interview for Playbill On-Line, Kulick said that he "wanted to replicate the feeling of an ocean or sea without using water" while looking for an "image that would be a metaphoric suggestion and give the kind of kinetics of water." Since "so much of the play is people being thrown into circumstances and not [being] in control," it seemed to Kulick that "the idea of being able to slide, to be able to tumble in, to be off-balance" was appropriate. Twelfth Night is, after all, a play about love and the ways that it can intoxicate, madden and send its parties on a roller-coaster ride.
After hearing Duncan Sheik’s album "Paper Moon," Kulick decided he wanted the rock singer/musician and occasional Joe’s Pub performer to compose the score for Twelfth Night. Kulick said that Sheik’s music had a "sort of oceanic melancholy" that fit in well with the production. Sheik primarily records rock music, and the music he’s written for this production has a modern, present-day-radio sound. The musician explained that while what he’s created here has something of a contemporary edge — having been inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake — it actually is his idiosyncratic version of what he would call "English folk music." The result, he said, is a score that makes this play a little more accessible to the modern viewer with songs that range in tone from melancholy to a sort of "mad hatter" or "insane" vibe. What does a 400-year-old play (from most estimates the play was written in 1602) have to say to an audience living today in New York? For Jimmy Smits, the former star of "NYPD Blue," this experience and play is very much about love. A Brooklyn native, Smits had his first experience listening to Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater; coming back to New York after all that happened last September has been one way he’s been able to give back to the City of New York. Smits’ character (Orsino) is an intelligent, worldly man who is lonely and longing for companionship. Smits said this longing leads Orsino to fall "in love with [the idea of] being in love."
Oliver Platt — recently on NBC’s "West Wing" and soon to be on CBS’s "Queens Supreme" — plays Sir Toby Belch, a prankster who falls somewhere between a good-natured joker and a cold-hearted evildoer. Belch, along with several other cohorts (including Kristen Johnston as Maria), scheme to embarrass Malvolio (Christopher Lloyd). Belch’s scheme leads to many laughs for himself, his friends and the audience. However, while humorous at first, Platt commented that this play is so "chilling" because it’s "like the party that goes on too long." Shakespeare ultimately suggests that maybe even good-natured joking can turn from fun into what Platt said is something "really nasty." Director Kulick sees this play as being a journey. In Kulick’s mind Shakespeare is saying, "I know what you think. You look at somebody and make a snap judgment as to who that person is, but people aren’t what you think they are." Ultimately, Kulick said, this leaves us with the thought that "there is a difference between what people seem and what they really are."
And what about all of that Shakespearean prose that many people dread interpreting? Director Kulick dubs this phobia "Shakespeare Panic," a condition when audience members freak out after 15 minutes of trying to decipher Shakespearean prose. To alleviate this panic, Kulick said the first thing to do is "get the best actors you can, and I think I’ve been very fortunate in this respect." Another key element, Kulick added, is to try to find the right way to "invite the audience in, be a part of the event" and "let them know that they are collaborators." Kulick commented that "one of the great things that Shakespeare does is he has these moments when the actors actually talk to the audience," which "suddenly reminds the audience that they are part of it." Actor Smits also said that the language of Shakespeare was a concern to him. Throughout rehearsals, he has been "trying to bring the clarity of the language across to this audience."
Audiences can judge for themselves, as Twelfth Night continues its run at the Delacorte through Sunday, August 11 (the official opening is July 21. To become part of the audience, visit the Public Theater’s website at www.publictheater.org for information about obtaining tickets.
—By Kevin Hylton