Twelfth Night

June 29, 2002

"With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, …

For the rain it raineth every day… "

The rain seems to be the theme for this week, seeing as the weather has been very moody. We’ve had dramatic thunderstorms almost every day. Wonderful for curling up inside with a good book, slightly more nerve racking if you’re planning on seeing some outdoor theater. This is exactly what we had planned, so we kept our fingers cross as we headed out to Central Park.

This year’s Shakespeare in the Park festivities at the Delacorte Theater is Twelfth Night or What You Will. This is the Ol’ Bard’s comedy that I think can best be summed up by the lines of a recent Bob Dylan song, "Feel like falling in love with the first person I meet." Viola dresses up like a man and promptly falls in love with the Duke. The Duke can’t tell she’s not a boy, and anyway loves Olivia. But Olivia can’t love the Duke because she promptly falls in love with Viola, not knowing she’s a girl. There’s a pompous butler who’s in love with himself, and the drunk cousin who’s in love with the bottle. Throw Viola’s twin brother into the mix and let the comedy ensue. It’s mistaken identity, cross dressing, and drunkards. That wacky Bill Shakes. Everyone in this play is a few tacos short, and the only one who knows it is the Fool. Seeing as he’s the only one who gets paid for being zany, maybe he’s actually the wisest of them all.

These plays in the Park are free productions, the only price being that you have to wait in line to get the prized tickets. Last year we had to camp out all night for our precious seats. This year, things are a little more relaxed, but still, Alex got up and was in line by 10:30, for the 1pm ticket give away. Tiffany came later with lunch. It was a hot and muggy day, but the fellow line goers were friendly, and we passed the time by reading all the synopsis of the play we could find in our various Shakespeare books. First came Mary Lamb’s account in her book Shakespeare Stories, in which she’s told the stories of all the major plays as if they were children’s stories. Unfortunately she’s left out the business about the drunk cousin and the stuffy butler. Without these details it’s just a bizarre melodrama. Next up was Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits, a wonderful book that tells the stories through different character’s points of view. Twelfth Night is a series of love letters changing hands between all the parties involved. Throw in some Harold Bloom and our crash course education was passable enough to enjoy things like the best of Bardologists.

At 1:00 we got our tickets. Now the only concern was for the weather, which had grown darker. The Delacorte is an outdoor theater, so we might be in for an impromptu performance of the Tempest instead. Hopefully the rain wouldn’t raineth on this day. We decided to continue our reading in the nearby Shakespeare garden, a beautiful corner of Central Park containing all the plants mentioned in the plays. No sooner had we gotten there and picked out a nice bench to sit on, then the rain did begin to raineth. This turned into a real East Coast downpour. The lightning began to flash, the thunder rolled over head. Rain was pouring down in sheets putting other storms to shame. Of course we had no umbrella with us so we took refuge under a tree. When the storm did finally let up, the paths of the garden were steaming in the heat. Eat your heart out, tropic climes! These storms really are something to see.

After this we returned home, cranked up the AC and had a short nap — we’d been out till 5am the night before visiting the set for Alex’s latest movie "Anger Management."

That night the weather held out, and the (Hollywood) stars came out. These plays attract quite the stellar casts. Julia Stiles had the lead role as the cross-dressing Viola. She’s always a bit wooden, and we both agreed that things would be a lot better if this were played by someone else. Jimmy Smitts was the Duke, Oliver Platt the drunkard, and Christopher Lloyd the humorless butler. It is amazing to see all these accomplished actors playing Shakespeare right in front of us. All did excellent jobs, but this version of the play struck us as strangely melancholy. Everyone seemed to take it all too seriously, Acting with capital A’s. The few songs in the play brought the action to a screeching halt, and it was directed as if no one realized it’s a comedy.

The stage was a giant wave complete with wrecked ship. The whole thing sloped like a huge blue slide. The actors entered by slipping down the thirty-foot face of the wave on rugs and blankets. This was a wonderful way to begin things after the opening shipwreck, but for your average entrance it seemed a little odd, especially when Olivia‘s bed got caught on a railing and almost sent her tumbling. It’s always a shame when the audience laughs when they’re not supposed to, and barely chuckles at bits that are supposed to be funny.

They got through it all, and the play ends with, "But hey, ho, the wind and the rain,/But that’s all one, our play is done,/And we’ll strive to please you every day." Every day of the summer that is, the play runs through August, weather permitting of course. Though we left feeling a little let down, in the end we were glad we’d come.

Two nights later we saw a second production of Twelfth Night that put smiles back on our faces. A play that was full of life and energy, and yes comedy. We had picked up a post card advertising the play at our favorite coffee shop, Bean -"live music and cheesecake". At first we thought it was the same one as at the Delacorte. If we’d only looked up their web site, we would’ve rushed out and seen it a month ago. As it is, we caught them on the second to last night.

Once again in Central Park, this time further north at 97th St. we met with fifty or so other expectant audience members. Programs were handed out and the director of this loose gathering welcomed us and introduced the play. Out of the trees down a small hill came Viola and the Captain, "What country is this?" Right then we knew that we were in for a fun ride.

The production was told outdoors travelling through the park, using the rolling hills as the stage. The audience was invited to sit on the grass or stand while the players acted out their scenes in various places amongst the trees and meadows. When one scene ended, we were guided to another spot down the path, by the sounds of the next scene. The entire audience would hurry to the next spot, and catch the action already under way. And once this scene was done, off we’d go again to a new scene further on. Each location was a perfect stage, changing with the setting sun and the moods of the sky. It was all so fluid and literally kept us on our toes. We circled around a corner of the Park picking up curious picnickers and cyclists as we went. Who were these strange players strolling through the park followed by this throng of people? Birds chirped in the trees. Traffic roared by on CPW. The play came alive in this setting.

The songs that were strangely maudlin in the more "recognized" production further south were in this play wonderfully alive. The Fool and his guitar was joined by three other players in the scene to make a barber shop quartet out of one of the tunes. Scene for scene we were grinning right along with the Fool.

The sun went down and the director and a stagehand lit the faces of the actors with flashlights. Bats darted overhead chasing away the bugs. Fireflies came out lighting the grass with sparks as the actors walked along reciting their lines. It was the perfect enchanted evening setting to stage such a play. This was miles above the Delacorte production with its big-name actors and corporate sponsors.

The sky was getting dark and the clouds looked threatening, but as they sang the last lines of "for the rain, it raineth every day," no rain came. We both agreed that this was the play we had wanted to see all along. And with the free admission, no one got… soaked (groan! couldn’t resist). Now we can look forward to their next production, which will be Taming of the Shrew in August.

What a treat that we were able to see two such different productions, lines recited by wildly divergent actors, all under the every changing skies of Central Park in June.

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