By: David Sheward *****
In a dazzling tour de force, two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance tackles a pair of diverse roles in repertory at the Belasco Theater after a smash-hit run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In keeping with Elizabethan tradition, all the female roles are played by men, and Rylance makes a convincing Olivia in Twelfth Night. She’s an icy lady whose mournful exterior melts when she encounters a beautiful youth who happens to be a maiden in disguise. Rylance brilliantly conveys Olivia’s haughty reserve melting into schoolgirl giddiness worthy of a Justin Bieber fan as she falls in love.
In Richard III, the actor endows the tyrannical usurper with a devilish sense of humor, all the more horrifying when contrasted with his evil machinations, including murdering half his family to get to the throne. In both roles, Rylance creates the illusion that these immortal lines are being spoken for the first time, a feat worth the price of two admissions.
The star is delivering a pair of the most naturalistic performances I’ve ever witnessed, yet the impeccable staging by Tim Carroll, the faithful period set and costumes by Jenny Tiramani, the imperceptible lighting by Stan Pressner, and the gorgeous music by Claire van Kampen played on 16th-century-style instruments place us in a highly artificial world. The audience, many of whom are seated onstage, is even treated to a preshow ritual of watching the cast don their elaborate duds and makeup, reinforcing the theatrical construct. Yet somehow this oft-kilter combination of substance and make-believe works. Carroll has created a magnificent Elizabethean playground, and his intuitive headliner plays in it like a child totally convinced it’s the real world rather than a wooden O.
Though the rest of the cast doesn’t even approach Rylance for daring and spontaneity, it is a solid, inventive ensemble. Samuel Barnett makes a lovely Viola, the gender-bending page, and a formidable Queen Elizabeth who is one of the few royals able to stand up to the ravenous Richard. Paul Chahidi nearly steals Twelfth Night as the saucy serving maid Maria and lends dignity to the double-crossed Hastings and sliminess to the murderer Tyrell. The leonine Angus Wright uses his height and noble bearing for comic effect as the buffoonish Sir Andrew Aguecheek and, for stark contrast, to the handsome but treacherous Buckingham. Colin Hurley is a riotously raucous Sir Toby Belch, and Stephen Fry is a dry and foppish Malvolio. But the center of both shows is Rylance, who is sure to win a third Tony Award; the only difficulty voters will have is to decide for which performance.
November 14, 2013
Nov. 10-Feb. 2. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC.
Twelfth Night: Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission.
Richard III: Wed 8pm, Sat 2pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $27-137. (800) 432-7250. www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus