“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about TWELFTH NIGHT and ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE.

When the New York Shakespeare Festival announced that it was offering Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, I must confess my first thought was, “Again?” I have seen at least six productions of the play in the past twenty years, three of them at the Delacorte. Well, the current production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, more than justifies Yet Another look at this wonderful play. It’s my favorite of all my Twelfth Nights, and in my top five all time great nights of Shakespeare.

Sullivan has set the play vaguely in the Empire period, though some of Jane Greenwood’s beautiful costumes evoke the era of Hogarth, on a rolling countryside of a set by John Lee Beatty, which Sullivan uses to hilarious effect. In this most musical of Shakespeare’s comedies he has employed the talents of a wonderful band called Hem, whose music sounds Irish country, and who interact with the actors to a most amusing effect.

And then: those actors! Anne Hathaway is a charming Viola. She inhabits her role better than anyone else I’ve seen, and she has a lovely singing voice. She’s that rarity, a movie star with real stage chops. She is matched by Audra MacDonald as Olivia, who starts out austere and instantly turns giddy when she falls for young Cesario, in Orsino’s service, who is of course Viola disguised as a man. Easily transitioning from demonically intense Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow to Orsino, lovesick suitor to Olivia, Raúl Esparza once again demonstrates that he is one of our finest stage actors. And then: those clowns! Never have I seen them funnier. Jay O. Sanders plays Sir Toby Belch as if he were as kin to Falstaff as he is to Olivia and Hamish Linklater is a scream as that archetypal wimp Sir Andrew Aguecheek. David Pittu is hilarious as Feste, and Julie White an absolute delight as Olivia’s serving lady Maria.

This is one special evening, folks. It’s worth waiting in line for hours and hours.

Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe (at the Clurman Theatre) sounded to me like a very promising premise. This play easily can be adapted to changing times and mores. Several years ago, Circle in the Square did an amusing adaptation of the play by Freyda Thomas called Tartuffe: Born Again, in which John Glover played a wily televangelist. Here, the play, adapted by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner, has been set in Harlem in the 1920’s-30s, and Tartuffe is a blatant rip-off artist whose only god is lucre, who makes Rev. Ike seem like Billy Graham. Much of the evening consists of the “Archbishop’s” services, which feature scantily-clad chorus girls shaking their tail feathers as the preacher duns us for more money to help support his profligate life style. His biggest supporter, Orgon is emptying his coffers and giving it all to his “church,” much to the dismay of his family.

Part of the problem with the show is that the Archbishop’s “services” tend to seem more of the same after a while, and I don’t think the basic premise works all that well. Tartuffe is too obviously a con artist for the play to have much credibility. Still, the performers are high-energy – particularly André De Shields in the title role, and Kimberly Glennon’s costumes are a hoot.

I sat there rolling my eyes for much of the show; but I have to report that the black folks in the audience were yukking it up.