You never forget that a shipwreck sets the plot in motion in this summer's Central Park Delacorte Theater staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, because the ruined vessel is right there on stage. It sits at the top of Walt Spangler's undulating set, an uninterrupted series of wooden planks painted sea blue and bent to resemble a rolling ocean.
"I wanted to find a way to create water without using water," said director Brian Kulick at a recent open rehearsal for the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production. "These plays are about finding balance. So creating spaces that are slightly unbalanced [is important], because Shakespeare's plays begins in chaos and then right themselves at the end. I do like finding something that can create the energy of that world on a kinetic level."
The back wall of the set slopes steeply skyward roughly 20 feet in the air. From certain angles it resembles the sort of water slide found at amusement parks. Appropriately, Kulick sends several members of his cast cascading down the wave "for various reasons in various states. For me, those moments are when people are swept away — swept away by love, by loss, by anger."
Kristen Johnston, who plays the wily maid Maria, is not one of the lucky to take the plunge, and she is grateful. "It's hell, actually," she remarked, when asked what it was like to act on such a rippling stage. Her costume doesn't help matters. She enumerated her burdens: "A corset, a 35-pound hoop skirt that goes out to there, and lots of black wool." That the weather has been hot over the last few days is not lost on the cast, which had its first preview on June 25.
Zach Braff, the "Scrubs" sitcom star who plays Sebastian in the play, however, has taken a shine to the set. He makes an entrance atop the shipwreck as it is wheeled, slowly and dramatically, toward the audience. "Watch this! This is cool!" he told reporters as he demonstrated the feat. Like Johnston, Oliver Platt, who is Sir Toby Belch, was actively pursued by the play's producers. "I hadn't been so excited to be offered a job in a long, long time," said Platt, who has split his time between television and film during the last decade, "just because I had really been looking to do a play."
Surprisingly, Julia Stiles—arguably the show's biggest star—was not courted. Instead, she was the aggressive party. "I'd been wanting to get back on stage for a long time," related the film star. "And especially doing Shakespeare. So when I found out they were going to do Twelfth Night this summer, I jumped on it."
Stiles auditioned twice before she landed the part.
Among this crew of Shakespeare first-timers—Johnston, Platt and Stiles have never acted the Bard on stage prior to this—Michael Stuhlbarg is a seasoned veteran. He had performed in the Park five times: As You Like It, All's Well That End's Well, Henry VIII, A Winter's Tale and, now, Twelfth Night, in which he plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek. (He must be getting better with each try: The current outing is the first time the Public Theater has offered him a part outright.)
Do the TV and movie stars come to him for advice about the space, the heat or the audiences? "I've been able to tell them about my past experiences and ease them into it a little bit," Stuhlbarg said shyly. "When the questions come, I'll try to give them my best answers."
Also in the cast of Twelfth Night are Christopher Lloyd as Malvolio, Jimmy Smits as Orsino, Kathryn Meisle as Olivia, Craig Baldwin, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Sterling Brown, Bill Buell, Al Espinosa, Natalie Gold, Kevin Isola, Paul Kahn, Peter Katona, Doan Ly, Andrew McGinn, Michael Potts and John Livingston Rolle.
The show officially opens July 21 and runs through Aug. 11.
—By Robert Simonson