Anything Goes at Shakespeare in the Park!

c twelfthnight5 credit joan Anything Goes at Shakespeare in the Park!I feel that I must reluctantly correct a serious error Oskar Eustis keeps making about his own theater.

The artistic director of the renowned Public Theater is known for his sometimes manic enthusiasm. He’s like the Music Man leading the parade while singing a rousing rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones”—and no particular harm in that. But in his natural exuberance, he gets things wrong. Among a number of lapses I could mention, by far the most serious is that he’s lately begun paying tribute to “the founders of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp and Bernard Gersten.”

The first time was on national TV during his excited acceptance speech when the Public won its well-deserved Tony for Hair. Then, at the recent gala dinner for the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, Mr. Eustis twice celebrated his new co-founders of the Public, Joseph Papp and Bernard Gersten.

Mr. Eustis surely means no harm—or offense—in his rewrite of theater history. But his surprising pronouncement comes as a shock to at least a few of us—including, I dare say, the good Bernard Gersten.

Mr. Gersten, the distinguished executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, was the late Joseph Papp’s associate producer and loyal right-hand man for 18 years, and his honorable place in New York theater history is assured. But he began working for his old friend in 1960—six years after the legendary Papp dreamed up his most extraordinary achievement of free Shakespeare in the Park.

The autocratic Papp wasn’t always loved, and he wasn’t always fair. But his victorious battle with New York’s all-powerful Robert Moses for free Shakespeare and the building of the open-air Delacorte Theater in the Park has long since gone down in theater history. Mr. Eustis has only to glance at Helen Epstein’s vivid, authorized biography, Joe Papp: An American Life, to learn that Papp alone founded the New York Shakespeare Festival—which became the Public Theater—and that Mr. Gersten himself has paid generous tribute to the fact.

In his cruelest act, Papp fired Bernard Gersten for vague and paranoid reasons. Ms Epstein records how years later, Mr. Gersten described himself as Kent to Papp’s King Lear. “What would you with me, sir?” Lear asks Kent. “I would serve you, sir,” Kent replies.

Papp also fired another of his lieutenants, Merle Debusky, his loyal press man and wise counselor for 30 years. He also fell out lethally with Stuart Vaughan, his first artistic director during the 1950s. Theater has never been a relaxed place.

But the least Mr. Eustis could do is get Papp’s legacy right. He’s been gone nearly 18 years. Yet it’s only a short while ago that the theater he founded on Lafayette Street was named the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

Memory still ought to count for something—yes? It’s why we look to Oskar Eustis to do the right thing and set the record straight.

 

PAPP’S ORIGINAL ideal for Shakespeare was basically anti-British. He reacted passionately against the declamatory high acting style of the British thea-tah. As a Brit who was raised on Shakespeare, I’ve always been in favor of Papp’s profound belief in a refreshing American naturalism and wit. I draw the line only at the Public’s frustrating tradition of Shakespeare in the Park productions where anything goes.

The pleasure of Daniel Sullivan’s new production of Twelfth Night, subtitled by Shakespeare or What You Will (“Anything Goes,” as it were)—is in the veteran Mr. Sullivan’s mostly superior cast and unusual care in the verse-speaking. Its weakness, ironically, is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Its even, predictable pace isn’t swift or manic enough for Shakespeare’s festive, wild imaginings about an illusory Illyria where everyone falls madly in love with the wrong person. The romantic comedy’s seductive, cross-dressing eroticism is absent. In her lovely, assured Shakespeare debut as Viola disguised as a boy, Anne Hathaway makes a better boy than a girl. Her dashing disguise in drag as Cesario frees her. Ms Hathaway has it all—except, as yet, the experience that allows lyricism to breathe unhurried.

But the strange and wonderful sexual attraction between Viola/Cesario and Duke Orsino (Raúl Esparza, dripping in curls and melancholy) never begins to come to the beguiling boil. Sexual repression is a particular kind of Englishness—an England where the rain it raineth every day beyond a retractable roof.

The Olivia of Audra McDonald is at first too arch, and her yearning for Cesario, alas, too broad. David Pittu is in excellent voice as an assured Feste, although he drifts into camp. (The appealing original score is written and performed by Hem.) Julie White is swell—and great fun—as the scheming below-stairs broad, Maria. But Sir Toby Belch, that cut-price Falstaff, has always been a pickled, belching bore to me, no matter who plays him. The idiotic aristocrat, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, less so—particularly when played so amusingly by Hamish Linklater. But a Malvolio who cannot ultimately touch us in his too punished self-delusion and ambition is no Malvolio.

Twelfth Night’s Illyria is England. Whereas the new production’s Illyria appears to be a tree-lined miniature golf course with little astroturf hillocks. No matter! That’s almost comfortingly normal at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, where anything—usually—goes.

jheilpern@observer.com