Surf’s Up, Dude! Shakespeare Catches Wave in Central Park

When it comes to the Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in Central Park, I usually find myself doing a rain dance. Sometimes it works. Now, I agree a rain dance isn’t a nice thing to do to Shakespeare lovers on a balmy summer night. But not if you’ve seen Shakespeare in the Park lately. Plus, it’s good for the water supply. As that wise, melancholic misery, Feste the clown, puts it in Twelfth Night :

When that I was and a little tiny boy

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

Well, that’s certainly true. The tradition of Shakespeare in the Park comes every year with hey, ho, the wind and the rain. All agree-that is, nobody I know disagrees -that you do not go to see the Public Theater’s Shakespeare productions without a tremor of doubt in your heart. We always hope for the best. But I’m afraid that experience has taught us to fear the worst.

The productions have always varied in excellence. But of late, they’ve become notoriously potluck, as if casting untrained TV “stars” and romping celebs is enough to sell the “product.” What are they selling ? (It’s free!)

People will go anyway. People will travel through fire to go to the theater-provided you offer them the chance of experiencing something remarkable. Does the Public Theater currently have the will?

Due to cutbacks, its Shakespeare in the Park season has gone from its customary two summer shows to the single production of a starry Twelfth Night . There was no alternative, it seems. But it’s a worrying sign. However hit-or-miss the productions are, the most important work the Public could do is its free Shakespeare. The tradition is the magnificent legacy of Joseph Papp, the Public’s founding father. Papp saw the possibilities-insisting on the right of the people to experience the greatest of all dramatists without paying a dime. Without Shakespeare in the Park, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers might never have had the opportunity of even going to the theater.

And then there’s the artistic reality of the productions themselves, which we often sentimentalize and usually forgive, because even bad Shakespeare is somehow a good thing . What exhausting effort they make to popularize the most popular playwright in the world! They’re the ones who induce psychological rain dances.

It so happens the Twelfth Night production-whose unusual design concept is surfing, as in “hang ten”-was rained out the night I was due to see it. The relief! (I must confess); then the conscience …. The Twelfth Night cast is led by Jimmy Smits (of L.A. Law and NYPD Blue ) as Orsino, and the hot young movie star Julia Stiles as Viola. Ms. Stiles, who’s still a student at Columbia, has very little stage experience. She’s appeared in The Vagina Monologues , but then, haven’t we all? She’s also the star of three hip Shakespeare films, including her Ophelia to Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet.

Unfortunately, the next night I was due to see the production there was a storm watch. It had nothing to do with me, I assure you. I heard the news on the Accu-Weather Forecast delivered by Sam Champion, who is soon to play King Lear at Lincoln Center. But, alas, the rain raineth in buckets. By this time, I was feeling deprived of Shakespeare, and so dashed at the last minute to see the highly regarded Aquila Theatre Company’s production of The Comedy of Errors , which takes place indoors. It’s similar to Twelfth Night : storm scene, twins, gender confusion, happy ending.

If near-lunatic energy made great Shakespeare, the small, talented Aquila ensemble would win hands down. True, The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s silliest play, but let the play speak for itself. The frantically clowning, miming, mugging, rolling, wildly gesticulating, feverishly jesting cast adds lots of boisterous cartoon sound effects to the lines: “Grrrrr! Grrrrr!” “Swish!” “Zyup!” The line “I say nay to that” is thus accompanied by neighing. And to that I say, “Tush.” Or, “Tush, tush.”

Yet for all that, the language itself-the bits between all the business -is well spoken. If only the Aquila troupe would calm down and illustrate the text less. But I’m not sure they want to. Their credo is to communicate with visceral power. As they put it in a scholarly note in their Playbill : “It was, of course, the Greeks who first used the term ‘theater,’ meaning ‘seeing-place.’ With this in mind, to study only the textual influences on drama is to discredit the very reason why audiences choose to go and see a play.”

Yes, but Shakespeare asked audiences to hear a play. We see a play, of course. But the text and the poetry conjure up the magic. Theseus speaks for Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when lovely Lion and Moonshine et al. perform their little play for him:

I will hear that play;

For never anything can be amiss,

When simpleness and duty tender it.

And so, at last, under clear skies to the Public’s Twelfth Night , where there’s duty enough. But “simplicity” is not a word in its Shakespearean universe. Text is secondary; text is always feared. The amazing surfing production by Brian Kulick, in tandem with his scenic designer Walt Spangler, is to be seen, not heard.

They’ve taken Shakespeare’s subtitle “What You Will”-whatever!-literally, and swamped the proceedings with the bold, mad concept of a precariously steep slope down which Viola surfs into the action along with other brave, wobbly souls. They whoosh and wobble down the blue cardboard wave as if shooting the tube while lying face-up on mats. But not always. To a thoroughly deserved burst of applause, David Harbour’s spirited pirate Antonio conquers the tsunami standing up. On his perfect, soft landing, Mr. Harbour, one of the best actors in the production, takes a bow, as if to say: “Radical, dude!”

It was at least a sensational beginning. Less Illyria, more Hawaii. The storm scene itself-and where would Shakespeare be without storms ?-isn’t, well, stormy. It’s jolly . But then, the entire focus throughout the production is on the wave and a shipwrecked galleon we’ve already seen at the start. For, once there, they can’t get rid of them. And once we’ve seen them-once we’ve seen the trick-what then?

And so there they sit, like patience on a monument-the wave and the ship-waiting inertly for something to happen. Until, that is, another character comes surfing merrily into town, to the by now more muted response of the audience. And the play?

Oh, that . The play is the most perfect of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, and it’s his last. Twelfth Night was written just before Hamlet . It’s the bridge to the tragedies. But the muddled emphasis of Mr. Kulick’s production is on the clownish. The romance is muted, the darker notes unplayed. Good old belching Sir Toby Belch and his half-witted companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, have their moments here, no doubt. But Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg are low, slow comics, and Twelfth Night is nothing if not fast.

The assured Ms. Stiles’ Viola has no stage poetry in her, I regret to say. The flat, downward inflections of her voice are earnest, her performance as a whole played on the same unmysterious note. We must fall in love with the wonder of Viola, if we can. The mature Mr. Smits’ Duke of Illyria is too fussily blah even for the narcissistic Orsino. Michael Potts’ Feste sings beautifully (but to the wrong music). Kathryn Meisle sparks as Olivia, but then Christopher Lloyd’s Malvolio is a deadly kind of Puritan. The surprising mean-spirited dimension to Malvolio’s downfall-his pathetic, even tragic undertow-is fatally absent. Special mention, though, of Zach Braff’s Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother. This practically unknown actor possesses the speed and musicality that delight us.

But strip away the set- the wave -and what are we left with? And the answer is, the wind and the rain. Hey, ho! At least with theater, there’s always a new beginning.

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day .