NEW YORK (AP) — Mark Rylance will have you pealing with laughter as he plays a repressed noblewoman in William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." He'll also, rather astonishingly, do the same as Richard III.
The superstar English actor finally reveals his Shakespeare skills to a Broadway audiences and it's worth the wait: His Olivia is as wonderfully mad with passion as his "rudely stamped" monarch in "Richard III" is simply mad, veering from farcical buffoonery to a glint of the savage.
Both plays from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London that were also hits in the West End are being performed in repertory here and opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre, offering a darkish comedy the lightest of stagings and a pitch-dark tragedy played for laughs.
They bring the plays alive, brilliantly and made immediate, even if "Twelfth Night" nudges ahead of its more homicidal cousin if the cost of seeing both is prohibitive, although the producers have admirably offered huge student discounts. Taken together, these are pure sweet and sour joy.
The plays are directed with aplomb by Tim Carroll and celebrate Rylance's attempt to get as close as possible to original staging, costumes, music and acting styles. The stage, for instance, is illuminated by chandeliers packed with real dripping candles, and there are seven musicians playing traditional Elizabethan instruments in a gallery above the stage. Jenny Tiramani's pale wooden backdrop and carved banquet table and benches are keeping with the minimal theme, though a tad unrelenting.
Entering the Belasco, audiences will also witness the pre-show ritual of actors dressing and preparing their makeup onstage and some customers will actually be seated on the stage in towers on either side, a nod to the intimate theaters of The Bard's age. (Rylance graciously waves and shakes hands with stunned-looking ticket holders before the tragedy). At the end of each play, everyone dances, even the dead king in the tragedy.
There are also no women acting, keeping with the theater traditions of yore. All female roles are played by men and this device adds a layer of winking meaning to the comedy, since it plays with gender-swapping already. The homoeroticism is played for laughs perfectly in 2013.
Rylance, the Globe's first artistic director and celebrated on this side of the Atlantic for "Boeing-Boeing" and "Jerusalem," shows his decades of ease with Shakespeare, particularly his reprising of the white-faced and trembling Olivia, who finds herself unglued in the presence of a young man, who is, in fact, a young woman in disguise. Her gliding about like a Kabuki character is a highlight of this rich Shakespeare season.
But Rylance's Richard III doesn't have the customarily slow burn into madness that others have taken. There are times it's hard to separate him from a buffoon, bumbling about like a twit with oddly little charisma. He gets laughs — but not scared ones — for delivering such lines as "He cannot live" and "I'll have her; but I will not keep her long" ("What?" he asks the audience in a humorous aside).
Instead of dread, Rylance with a withered left arm and crocodile tears seems to be reaching for a kind of psycho fool, and so doesn't reach the horror of a "minister of hell" or a man who does the "inhuman and unnatural."
The 19-member cast also includes a regal Stephen Fry making his Broadway acting debut as Malvolio in "Twelfth Night." He plays his role to the pompous, supercilious hilt, but you also sort of feel bad that he is so mistreated. (The play also contains a triumphant scene in which he is watched reading a forged love letter.) Fry is not in "Richard III," which is a shame for us.
Others who shine in both are Angus Wright as a daffy knight in "Twelfth Night" and a too-crafty-for-his-own-good Duke of Buckingham in "Richard III," Paul Chahidi as a hysterical Maria in "Twelfth Night" and he dual roles of Hastings and Tyrrell opposed to Richard III, and Samuel Barnett, who is a glorious Viola in "Twelfth Night" and Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III." Liam Brennan is a dashing Orsino.
The productions offer memorable moments — the worst duel ever by two unwilling participants in the comedy, an ominously stabbed strawberry and a grotesque head on a pike in the tragedy, and a powerful scene in which a mad Richard wipes the tears from his stunned wife and dabs them on his own cheeks.
With a "Romeo and Juliet" behind us and a "Macbeth" to go, this is a purple patch for The Bard. But seeing Rylance in his element on Broadway is rare and special. Get thee hence.