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Paging Esther Williams

In Nicholas Hytner's strangely aquatic version of "Twelfth Night," spectacle and buffoonery take the place of poetry and insight -- his Shakespeare is all wet.

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Nicholas Hytner seems to have directed not Twelfth Night but its subtitle, What You Will. He has staged a production in which anything goes, although Jeanine Tesori's music, going from inappropriate to intolerable, hardly evokes Cole Porter. Like the costumes, speech, and acting, it ranges meretriciously all over time and place, whether to capture the kudos of young, know-nothing audiences or out of sheer anomie, I lack the psychiatric credentials to determine.

Shakespeare having set the action fantastically on the seacoast of Illyria, a country that no longer existed, Hytner decided to go him one better by driving the actors to wading, diving, tumbling into the sundry pools with which the stage is littered. On top of that, an arbitrary thunderstorm elicits near-inundation from above. All this comes as a prodigal act of supererogation: Merely confronted with Shakespeare's poetic diction and iambic pentameter, few cast members manage to keep their heads above water. Yet what finally sinks the production is not so much its lagoons as its lacunae -- in logic, literacy, and common sense.

Not quite a total loss, though. There are a few sound, waterproof elements, and the last ten or so minutes, when Hytner shakes off whatever demons from Peter Brook to Peter Sellars had him hagridden, are quite lovely. Let's start with the great Bob Crowley's fabulous folly of a set. From Monet's lily ponds to the Zuider Zee, from Venice to Xanadu, everything is here in ever-shifting perspective. From miniature swimming pools to far-meandering piers made of planking, suddenly sprouting palazzos, a baroque lighthouse seen variously from afar and nearby, and innumerable suspended lights that rise by modern magic, all is there except that useful modicum of consistency.

Conversely, Catherine Zuber's costumes fail even aesthetically. They jumble periods and continents as if shuffling playing cards, but even taken one by one, they belong in the circus, burlesque, or a male strip joint. Countess Olivia appears in progressively tawdrier and skimpier attire until, emerging from a pool in drenched white garb, she looks all but naked. Duke Orsino, not content with steadily keeping his chest bared, strips to a jockstrap for a dip; even when he goes formally wooing, he lets a third of his gold-chain-bedizened pectorals hang out. The rest of the fashions extend from Armani to Zouave.

On the other hand, Natasha Katz's lighting is the cat's meow from lyrical to dazzling, although here, too, there is a certain arbitrariness about when light ripples reflected from the waves will gambol on the backdrop, and when not. Still, if lightbulbs were tulip bulbs, Holland would be eclipsed. Joey McKneely's dances are relaxingly inoffensive; and there are three fine performances, all by older actors.

Max Wright offers, with exquisite timing, not the conventional whippersnapper of an Aguecheek but a middle-aged, thinning-haired stumblebum, a blithering and blundering much-defeated hoper-against-hope, as touching as he is entertaining. As his mentor and nemesis, the drunken Sir Toby, Brian Murray is irresistible. Whether bloatedly grandiose or delectably deflated, he exudes roguish, anarchic life, embattled or embottled, able to charm (since there are no birds out of the trees) fish out of the seas. Philip Bosco goes well beyond any Malvolio known to me in variety and depth. Starting as a typical pompous, snootily nasal bureaucrat, he fatuously melts into a prancing, senescence-defying swain easily led by the nose. The stages by which he tries to rejuvenate himself are delineated with perfection, yet the result is more than just laughable -- all too human. Moving in his downfall, sadly dilapidated in his disgrace, Bosco delivers a threateningly Parthian shot that should leave no one unshuddering.

Among the younger actors, Amy Hill is a perky and properly pesky Maria, though the part does not call for a Rosie-and-Roseanne clone. Julio Monge is a suitably virile Antonio if a Puerto Rican accent does not disgruntle your ears; as the other sea captain, Paul O'Brien is hearteningly straightforward.

David Patrick Kelly is an assured singing clown if you want a proletarian rather than a poetic Feste. After them, though, it is the deluge. Paul Rudd's insufferable Orsino just manages to be, in his better moments, merely obnoxious. Lolling around like an affected lounge lizard, mouthing words as if they were pastilles, preening and posturing as if auditioning for a Calvin Klein ad, he confuses Illyria with Chippendale's.

As Viola, Helen Hunt is as bad as it gets. She wears a permanently befuddled expression, scrunches up her eyes as though under a barrage of grapefruits, and always leads with her head as if to butt her lines into an enemy goal. Her delivery is a tuneless singsong, and whereas some Violas have trouble passing for a boy, this one has problems reminding us she's a woman. No less ludicrous is the Olivia of Kyra Sedgwick, though here the heavy directorial hand is more guiltily evident. She behaves largely like a sideshow freak, with double-jointed contortions, unhinged crouches and leaps, grimaces unlimited, and fishwifely squeals and yelps -- and this, mind you, from a supposedly frosty, aristocratic beauty in unthawable mourning. In a production in which unlikely and painfully protracted smoochings proliferate, her near-rape of Sebastian takes the cake -- if not the ale as well.

A sorry spectacle, too, is Rick Stear's Sebastian. Granted, he looks condignly mistakable for his sister, and tries, I imagine, to sound subduedly like her; he still gives a waterlogged performance. "Let me sleep," he says at one point, and he does so pretty much throughout. Skipp Sudduth's Fabian, outrageously costumed, mistakes grossness for comedy. And gross is the word for the musical prelude and entr'acte, in which the already jarring music competes with the blaring boogie and salsa bands of the Midsummer Night Swing in the plaza to which exiting ballet- and concertgoers are rudely subjected.

But in the last ten or fifteen minutes, a sea change takes place. Non-verse-speakers do not exactly wax adept but cease to be grating, everyone acts normal, movements turn apt and comely, actors are tastefully deployed across the vast playing area, and lights and shadows assume added meaning as winners are highlighted and losers slink away darkling. Even the music becomes tuneful and refined. And just before that, a few deft comic touches nicely set off the romantic conclusion. But it is too short a tail to wag so humongous a dog.


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