"Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended," reads a headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion. Indeed, it does seem uncommon to see actors performing Shakespeare while wearing puffy pantaloons and fringed capes, surrounded by a wooden O lit (almost) only by fire. That's exactly what Shakespeare's Globe has given us with their super-authentic all-male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, now running in repertory at the Belasco Theatre. This is the Broadway debut for the London-based company, and it is an auspicious one. The Globe has put its best foot forward with these beautifully designed and well-acted productions that star two-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance (Jerusalem) and Stephen Fry (Wilde) in his Broadway debut. While the two productions are not of the same level, they're both worthwhile for their boldness in attempting to bring authentically Elizabethan theater to the Broadway stage.
Director Tim Carroll has gone for high Shakespearean realness, and he has succeeded wildly. Upon entering the Belasco, you'll see the actors warming up onstage while they get into costume. Women were barred from the stage in Elizabethan England, so men played all the roles. Hence, you're likely to catch some dudes lacing up into their corsets and applying the face.
A band playing period instruments entertains the crowd while they prepare. Several audience members sit in wooden audience stands on either side of the stage, turning the proscenium theater into a three-quarter thrust. All that is missing is a barking vendor selling turkey legs and cabbage. The actors light the candles of two large chandeliers hanging above the stage (four are already lit, with a giant candelabra upstage center). This provides the majority of the illumination in this show, which has the fewest lekos and of any Broadway production I've ever seen. Once the candles are in the air, the show begins.
First, there's the production you're most likely to see: Twelfth Night (playing six out of eight performances each week, with the other two going to Richard). It's delightful — every bit the shimmering comedy of mistaken identity that Shakespeare wrote: Viola (Samuel Barnett) is a shipwrecked lady who disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, in order to gain access to the court of Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan with a studly Scottish brogue). Orsino attempts to woo the countess Olivia (Mark Rylance) by using Cesario as a messenger, but Olivia instead falls for this improbably disguised boy-girl-boy. So does Orsino, apparently. Homoerotic Shakespearean high jinks ensue, with lots and lots of drag.
Jenny Tiramani's meticulously detailed costumes are works of art. According to a program note, "Any one of these outfits took between 10 and 20 specialist craftspeople." The female characters, particularly, look like Renaissance paintings. They sweep across the stage with little geisha steps and alabaster-white faces. Rylance dons a glittering black mourning dress, a coronet, and copious white makeup as Olivia, a role he first played in 2002. His exaggerated femininity suggests pious nobility, regularly disturbed by less-than-holy stirrings. Rylance endows his Olivia with a halting speech that is quick to descend into shrieks when she is flustered. It's a marvel to behold.
Stephen Fry is spot-on as Olivia's steward Malvolio, who is tricked by maid Maria (Paul Chahidi in a show-stealing performance) into believing that Olivia only has eyes for him. During his famous letter scene, Fry wraps the audience around his little finger, exhibiting the kind of comic timing that makes soliloquies a pleasure. The whole thing ends with a full-cast jig that will have you standing in the aisle and clapping along.
Then there's Richard III, which as a "Tragedie" is a far more serious affair. Still, this tale of how Richard, Duke of Gloucester murders, imprisons, and marries his way to England's throne is unexpectedly played as a comedy, with Rylance in the title role.
Since his remains were exhumed from beneath a parking lot in Leicester earlier this year, the legacy of Richard III has once again become the subject of fascination, with some hailing him a boldly progressive reformer, rather than the Machiavellian villain found in Shakespeare's play. The final installment of Shakespeare's War of the Roses tetratology, Richard III may draw upon real events for its inspiration, but it is really just historically inaccurate propaganda, meant to demonize the last legitimate Plantagenet king and solidify the (always precarious) Tudor claim to the throne. (He was a child-killing, wife-poisoning hunchback! How could he be King of England?) Perhaps this is the source of the comedy, a wink and a nudge from the director to the audience, as if to say, "We know how silly and over-the-top this story is."
Shakespeare relied on his audience having at least a passing knowledge of these dynastic feuds of relatively recent history and their main players, so the plot develops at a feverish pace, with little room for exposition. This makes a production 400 years later in the United States of America a slightly more challenging prospect. It's kind of like showing Martians Return of the Jedi and expecting them to know what the heck is going on.
It's a much higher bar than Twelfth Night (love and deception are universal) and one that this production of Richard III does not clear, unfortunately. Nobles and royalty parade on and offstage at a dizzying pace and only a few stop long enough for us to get to know them. Rylance plays Richard as a clown, with the same halting speech and erratic movements as his Olivia, but with less-satisfying results. Don't get me wrong: I could watch Rylance babble incoherently for hours and still be entertained, but I cannot say his performance did anything to illuminate the murky character of Richard. At nearly three hours, this show tends to drag.
If you have to choose one, go with Twelfth Night. Either way, the sheer audacity of presenting repertory Shakespeare on Broadway with authentic design, music, and lighting deserves a round of applause for the Globe and its players.