Luckily for sodden New York theatergoers, the Delacorte is once again home to Shakespeare’s most all-weather comedy. With its seasonal promiscuity (it’s a midwinter comedy in a skimpy summer sundress) and circumscribing sogginess (the play opens with a squall and ends “with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain”), Twelfth Night is tailor-made for the city’s brand-new monsoon season. Some audiences, unlike mine, have been treated to a fully irrigated version of the show, and the Public has most likely recouped from poncho sales alone. But come rain or shine, before, after, or during the deluge, Daniel Sullivan’s perfectly cast, exquisitely pitched, thoroughly winning (though never merely winsome) production absolutely beams. I’d swear there are moments when the clouds part just for this show.
Let’s begin on the onstage lawn—it’s a lush cemetery green, and, wet or dry, it is openly, unmistakably Astroturf. The sculpted hillocks, trees of practically Ikean regularity, and whooshing slopes (all put to excellent use by the athletic cast) are forthrightly artificial, calling to mind both the repressed Olmstedian contours of Central Park and the manicured-yet-manic formality of Hollywood’s Forest Lawn. This is Sullivan’s Illyria, a country suffering a severe shortage of verifiable reality and a great surfeit of clowns, highborn and low, “allowed” and unwitting. Everyone is some kind of fool, from the official, capital-F Fool Feste (David Pittu, all languid, loungey irony) to the Dionysian mooch Sir Toby Belch (Jay O. Sanders, all bellowing, toothless appetite) to his kinswoman and sponsor Olivia (Audra MacDonald, so at home here, you want to see her Portia, her Rosalind). A countess on a grief binge, Olivia’s mourning her dead brother overmuch, while studiously deflecting the relentless advances of Orsino (Raúl Esparza, his lip curled to saturnine perfection), a duke whose emo self-regard is so intense, he threatens to erupt in a John Mayer song. Into this ongoing circus wanders Viola (a surefooted Anne Hathaway, who, shorn, recalls the androgynous eros of a young Matthew Broderick), a shipwrecked gentlewoman who mistakenly believes her beloved twin brother drowned, and, crushed but persevering, dons his manly mufti, the better to find gainful employment.
Illyria’s economy is apparently in recovery, because Viola quickly lands a position as page to Orsino, reluctant objet du désir to Olivia, and unwilling duelist to the dim-bulb courtier Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater), Olivia’s other, even more ridiculous suitor. (It’s hard to steal scenes in company this uniformly luminous, but Linklater, a preternaturally gifted tumbler with vocal acrobatics to match, manages to pull it off.) As in every good Shakespearean comedy, we are poised between the sowing and the reaping, when some kind of catastrophe seems just as plausible as some kind of renewal: life out of death, hybridity out of incest, symmetries smashed, restored, and smashed again,.This is the kind of change we don’t have to believe in—because it’s coming, imminent as a thunderhead, believe it or not.
Which brings us to the torture of Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty), Olivia’s sour “Puritan” manservant and the victim of the prankster Maria (Julie White), Sir Toby’s cunning inamorata—”a sportful malice” whose authors hope “may rather pluck on laughter than revenge.” Malvolio’s parting curse (“I’ll be revenged upon the whole pack of you!”) is, in many productions, cue for a backhanded slap of sobering pessimism, after the revels are through. But Cumpsty’s deliciously dour, doomed Malvolio is no looming threat, no harbinger of a crackdown to come; he’s a rather pitiable remnant of the ancien régime, a one-man rump party. And when Sullivan sends him packing, it’s neither malicious nor portentous. The company sings him off “with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,” set to triumphant folk pop by the band Hem. And there’s nothing morose about it. It’s a sunny declaration of shared foolishness, a way of saying, We’re all wet, and that’s just fine.