No Great Shakes

Not, however, if he's the kind of Orsino portrayed at the Delacorte by Jimmy Smits. Casting, today, is the swampiest crossroads in the New York theater, where directorial academicism meets producerial misguidance. The premise is that the audiences won't go to a play—even for free outdoors in summer—unless its cast is full of TV and film "names." The practice has been applied to more recent American classics and contemporary plays as well as to Shakespeare, and the New York Shakespeare Festival is by no means the only culprit. Yes, of course stars sell tickets, but the Delacorte has no tickets to sell, and "names" aren't the same thing as stars. Cast in a role for which they lack the training, experience, or sympathy, they're merely as big a drag on the event as any other miscast actor. Smits is a forceful and strong-voiced performer who, in the right role, would probably be effective. If you believe that a cultivated, love-besotted Duke is the same thing as a self-made streetwise rich guy given to brutish bullying, then you'll think him a very good Orsino.

As in any category of actors, not every "name" is a bad match for the role. Kristen Johnston, for instance, who carries around the persona of a loud vulgar gal, makes a very good loud vulgar Maria. But here you sometimes get a double trap. Only those who've seen other productions know that Maria doesn't have to be loud and vulgar—Charlayne Woodard proved that at the Delacorte some time ago—and only those who saw Johnston's stage work in productions like The Lights, before she was kidnapped by the space aliens who perpetrate American TV, know that she has other strings to her bow. When cast solely for her persona, she becomes trapped in it.

And all this is antithetical to Shakespeare's own approach: Writing for a permanent company, he tailored roles both to fit and to challenge artists whose abilities he knew. Burbage played all his leads, and Armin (at the time of Twelfth Night) all his clowns, but each hero or clown is a different person, and makes different demands on the actor. If you can't see the person, you are not seeing the play; and if the person you see doesn't match the text you hear, the director is at fault.

Jimmy Smits (Orsino) and Julia Stiles (Viola): as somebody likes it
photo: Michal Daniel
Jimmy Smits (Orsino) and Julia Stiles (Viola): as somebody likes it

Details

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
212-861-7277

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Once the junk and eccentricity are cleared away, Kulick's fault rate is surprisingly low. His mistakes start with Duncan Sheik's music, which is, pretty much, the worst and least memorable music ever composed for Twelfth Night. Michael Potts, as Feste, has been directed to sing them unattractively and play the role in a permanent state of ire. Julia Stiles's Viola is a non-presence, proving again that movies have nothing to do with acting. Against these lapses, we get Kathryn Meisle's scattered but substantial Olivia; an intermittently funny, though hideously overdone, set of comic routines from Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg as Toby and Andrew; a lively Fabian from Kevin Isola; and a haughty, scary Malvolio from Christopher Lloyd. (Lloyd, though, illustrates another part of the moral: Hollywood destroys actors' voices.) Once the play has started to work, the experience is garish—though Miguel Angel Huidor's handsome late-Victorian costumes certainly aren't—but not painful. It says something, though, that the best performance the night I attended was given by a late replacement, David Harbour, as Antonio. He even made it down the slide standing up. I wish I could say that the play had done the same.

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