Twelfth Night imagines a setting called Illyria in which all things, or so it seems, are possible: mistaken identity and gender confusion, wind and rain alongside sunlight and romance, and an elaborate gag involving a pair of brightly colored stockings. Oh, and reconciliation and a kind of rebirth at the very end. What better site, then, for this perennially popular Shakespeare comedy than the Delacorte Theater outdoors in Central Park? Here is an actual theatrical space in which anything can happen, as well, in tandem with an audience that arrives not so much shipwrecked, Viola-style, as punchdrunk on the possibilities of Shakespeare on a summer night.
That "spirit of celebration," says Twelfth Night's director, Daniel Sullivan, typifies both Shakespeare in the Park itself and this particularly beloved play. "We've taken a little slice of the park and lifted it on to the stage of the Delacorte," Sullivan says of his designer John Lee Beatty's visualization of Shakespeare's text. "You never quite leave the park, I think, when you're coming to see this production."
And audiences are sure to attend, given a cast that is starry even by the standards of the Public Theater and this very play. Making her professional Shakespearean debut is 2009 Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway as Viola, the unwitting enchantress who has barely washed up on the shores of Illyria before she sends most of the community — not to mention herself — into an erotic tailspin. The cast includes numerous Public and/or Shakespeare in the Park regulars (Michael Cumpsty as the steward Malvolio, he of the unfortunate legwear; Jay O. Sanders as the ever-sodden Sir Toby Belch) and at least two performers who are known to many for their work in musicals: Raúl Esparza, who has four Tony Award nominations to his name, and Audra McDonald, who has four trophies and two further nominations.
McDonald has done Shakespeare before: the smallish role of Lady Percy in the much-laureled 2003 Lincoln Center production of Henry IV, starring Kevin Kline as Falstaff. Olivia in Twelfth Night is something else again: a countess first glimpsed in mourning following the deaths of her brother and father who finds herself bewitched by the male disguise Viola chooses for herself as the page, Cesario. Esparza, in turn, is making his Delacorte debut as the lovestruck Orsino, a suitor enraptured by his own poetic skills who starts the play with the famous appeal to the sounds of sustenance, "If music be the food of love, play on." Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public, explains the high-level casting, which extends to Tony winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed) as the scheming Maria, one of the drunken Sir Toby's cohorts. "Once we had Anne, [the play] immediately became an actor-magnet," says Eustis. "It's also one of Shakespeare's great ensembles — a whole series of juicy, fantastic roles."
And although Hathaway has done stage musicals before, the intention here was to surround the "Rachel Getting Married" star and Shakespeare novice with a cast, notes Eustis, "stunning in its talent and also its solidity, if I can use that word. We've assembled a cast of the great New York stage actors of their generation. I feel like we're fielding a company as strong as any we've had in the park."
At the same time, this cast will not be delivering up a musical per se, even if the collective lung power of the company might suggest otherwise; the symphonic folk-rock band Hem will be on hand to supply the musical soundscape for the show. Regarding Esparza, says Sullivan, who worked with the actor two seasons ago on Broadway in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, "I thought Raúl's obsessiveness was right for the role. I wanted to get away from a sort of languorous Orsino to someone extremely high energy and changeable." The task suited Esparza fine. "I've been in New York nine years and always wanted to do [the Delacorte]; the opportunity never quite presented itself."
How, then, does he feel about the first Shakespeare he has undertaken professionally since a supporting role some years back in a Chicago Richard II? "It's hard work, and that's how you get better," says Esparza, who speaks with pride of reading the entirety of Macbeth when he was in fifth grade. "I like the idea of doing something I'm not exactly perfect for," he says of a role that is pushing him as Pinter and Mamet (Speed-the-Plow) in recent seasons have. "I think Orsino has no real sense of what love actually is, though he certainly know how to express it." One thing Esparza does know of the lovesick Illyrian duke should give comfort to this actor's fans: "I do think he needs to be very sexy."
McDonald, in turn, has a burgeoning TV career on the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff, "Private Practice," and reports feeling a real tug to New York and the city's theatre now that she is spending so much time in Los Angeles. "It's just kismet, this play," says McDonald, who had been thinking how best to spend her summer hiatus from the TV show. "TV dialogue is one thing, but I thought, 'What about if I work on the greatest writer that ever lived,' and so I was thinking that and was at the first preview of Hair and Oskar Eustis came up to me." You can guess the rest of a story she recounts giddily, capping the narrative with an exultant, "So here I am!"
Such enthusiasms beg the question what kind of Twelfth Night will this be, given a play that Sullivan compares to "trying to grab a fish underwater. It's hard to get hold of; it avoids easy categorization." McDonald talks in images of regeneration and renewal. "It's like spring is what happens to Olivia; it's the end of winter and Cesario comes into her life and buds just shoot forth." Esparza expresses his ongoing surprise at "how unevenly happy the play feels," as befits a play that can move in an instant from farce to anger and humiliation, heartache to ecstatic release.
"I don't think this is going to be an incredibly whimsical version," says Eustis, "nor do I think it's going to be an entirely tragic version. There's a dark side to the play with Malvolio's punishment but there's also the power of love and a joy that are very real." Twelfth Night is aptly subtitled What You Will. Go with an open mind and a ready heart and let Shakespeare and these performers lead you, shall we say, where they will.
Matt Wolf is a New Yorker who has lived for 25 years in London, where he is theater critic of The International Herald Tribune.