In NYC, Rylance, Taymor give the Bard a boost

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NEW YORK -- Shakespeare has visited New York for a couple of centuries, as long as America has had an active theatrical life, but the current conjunction of his plays has a special feel. That's the conviction I came away with a couple of weeks ago, fresh from the experience of the Globe Theatre/Mark Rylance Broadway doubleheader, alternating "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III," and Julie Taymor's extraordinary off-Broadway "Midsummer Night's Dream."

And there's more: If I'd had time, I could have seen Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in "Romeo & Juliet" (closing today), and if I'd stuck around a few days longer I could have seen Ethan Hawke play "Macbeth" with a supporting cast of Richard Easton, Malcolm Gets, John Glover, et al. There's even a four-actor off-Broadway version of "Hamlet" at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre and probably more than that.

But for this report, the stars are Mr. Rylance and Ms. Taymor.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

This is one of those giddy experiences where the overmatched critic simply says you just have to see it for yourself.

"See" is the key. The leads are mainly just competent (with two exceptions noted below). So Shakespeare's colorful, lively text hits no unusual heights. But the real amazement and even revelation come from director Taymor's conjunction of sets, props, costumes and lights, along with a large and varied ensemble swirling in and out, up and down, appearing and disappearing by magic.

The show begins, if my bedazzled memory is right, with a solitary, enigmatic figure who climbs up on a bed, which then rises high up, turns into a canopy and disappears -- both figure and bed. This androgynous figure, of indeterminate middle years and apparently infinite flexibility, turns out to be the splendid and occasionally splenetic Puck of Kathryn Hunter. (Come to think, I once saw her play Richard III at London's Globe!) She shares the acting honors with Tina Benko's Titania, beautiful and imperious in argument but, crawling into bed with the transformed Bottom, the sexual heart of this fabulous dream.

Oceans of fabric, projections, sparkle lights, an inner stage like a performance art light box, flocks of fairy henchmen, a ghostly orchestra, magical soundscape and lots and lots of pillows -- the visual pleasures appear, mutate and disappear. Only the Pyramus & Thisbe playlet doesn't pan out, maybe because it's buried in props where something simpler would suffice.

In a lifetime of theatergoing, half with professional intensity, I've seen some 20-plus "Midsummers," and this joins a couple of others at the top of the pile. What an opening for Theatre for a New Audience's handsome new, all bells and whistles, Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.

'Twelfth Night'

If you're lucky, you remember this production from the Globe Theatre's 2003 Pittsburgh visit, when they staged it in the shell of what thereafter became the CLO Cabaret on Penn Ave. Both it and "Richard III" follow what they call "original practices," including live period music, costumes contemporary to 1600 ("historical accuracy" is a later concept) and the audience lit as it would have been when the play was originally performed, not under the open sky at the Globe but in a grand hall lit by candlelight.

The definitive original practice, of course, is men playing all the parts. Now, as on that Pittsburgh visit, Mr. Rylance plays the mourning Countess Olivia. Head of a household full of comic subplots, she herself falls hopelessly in love with a young man who turns out to be a woman in disguise, and whom the audience (both then and now) knows to be a man, multiplying the comic ambiguities of gender.

Although some members of the ensemble have changed, this is basically that earlier production, but it has further deepened in rich detail that space doesn't remotely allow me to celebrate. One obvious change is the addition of famed author/actor Stephen Fry as Malvolio. He stands out, perhaps as much for his individual fame as not being an integral part of the Globe company, but this feeds the play, because Malvolio's inability to fit in is the source of both comedy and melancholy.

The latter distinguishes this "Twelfth Night." Though the words of the several songs are Shakespeare's, the music is lost, but Claire van Kampen has selected period music that expresses that melancholy, especially as performed by Peter Hamilton Dyer's rueful Feste, thereby throwing the comedy into deeper relief.

To all this, add praise for Liam Brennan's self-regarding Orsino and Samuel Barnett's delicious Viola. You may also hear about Paul Chahidi's Maria at Tony time, and maybe also Angus Wright's amusingly elderly Sir Andrew ... but where do the praises stop? This may be the best play on Broadway this year.

'Richard III'

On a subsequent visit to Pittsburgh in 2005, performing this time in the O'Reilly Theater, the Globe company staged "Measure for Measure." Meanwhile, back at their London home, the Globe, I had seen them in "Richard II," wherein Mr. Rylance played that feckless poet king with a mix of petulance and growing self-knowledge that ascended to tragedy.

Another "I" makes a big difference. Whatever he may have been in real history, Richard III is Shakespeare's brilliant comic/evil politician who climbs the peak only to find victory incomplete. Mr. Rylance plays this rich role as a goofball psychotic with whining comedy, not the evil glamour of an Olivier (the definitive Richard III of an earlier generation). Mr. Rylance fascinates, as Richard should. But that fascination doesn't verge on horror: his Richard is no tragic figure of sympathy or fear but an essay in comic melodrama.

As such, he has particular fun with Richard's climb to the top, astonishing himself with how easy it is. He is surrounded with strong if not individually memorable performances. Much of the fun (as with any good repertory theater) is savoring each actor in the context of his contrasting performance. I'd be happy to see this "Richard III" for itself, but I'd be more eager to see it after having seen "Twelfth Night."

"Midsummer" runs through Jan. 12; 866-811-4111. "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" are at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., through Feb. 16; 800-432-7250.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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