The Magic of Theater: The Globe Gives Us Shakespeare as Shakespeare Intended

'Sea Monsters' and 'How to Make Friends' flirt with incoherence; 'Nothing to Hide' is a dazzling bag of tricks

Mark Rylance in 'Twelfth Night.' (© Joan Marcus)

Mark Rylance in ‘Twelfth Night.’ (© Joan Marcus)

Is the lack of a gimmick itself a gimmick? After a motorcycle-riding, movie-star Romeo on Broadway this fall and a video-projection Athenian forest in Brooklyn last week, Shakespeare’s Globe has arrived at the Belasco Theatre with a radically unradical concept: The British company performs William Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed in William Shakespeare’s time. And so Twelfth Night and Richard III opened in repertory Sunday night, on a wood-paneled Elizabethan stage, with the actors in period costume, fifes and drums and horns providing period music, and all the roles played, as they were back then, by men. Mark Rylance—often posited as the greatest living English-language stage actor—is the star; he sports a gown in Twelfth Night as Olivia and a malformed hand in Richard III as the scheming, murderous king. He is excellent, and so is the rest of the cast.

Alas, the same can be said for only one of the plays.

These are lighthearted, rollicking nights, both in the staging and in the performances. Each begins with the actors being made up and costumed onstage—as a final preparatory note, two chandeliers of candles are lighted and lifted to join four others over the stage, like a pre-electric opening moment at the Met—and ends with a rhythmic group dance that turns into bows. Mr. Rylance underplays in the amusingly deadpan style you’ll recall from Boeing-Boeing and his Tony Award acceptance speeches. For Twelfth Night, this all coheres beautifully, men dressed as women doing droll turns in a comedy about cross-dressing and romance, shipwrecks and mistaken identity. But in Richard III, that same style seems misplaced. The play is a violent tragedy about a corrupt and corroded king, and yet this production has retains some measure of that lighthearted tone. When Kevin Spacey played the role at BAM two seasons ago, his Richard was chilling. Mr. Rylance’s seems more a buffoon, an accidental Machiavellian.

Still, there is great fun in watching this stellar company perform, and especially in seeing how the actors switch between roles in the two plays, both directed by Tim Carroll. Samuel Barnett gives standout, sensitive performances in both plays, both as women—in Twelfth Night, he’s Viola, the shipwreck survivor who in turn passes herself off as a man, and in Richard III, he’s Queen Elizabeth. Paul Chahidi switches from the scheming servant Maria in Twelfth Night to a pompous Lord Chamberlain in Richard III, and Angus Wright, so goofily high-spirited as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the former, becomes a sober Duke of Buckingham in the latter. It’s also a nice touch that Mr. Barnett and Joseph Timms, who play near-identical, though opposite-gender, twins in Twelfth Night, are also the two queens, Elizabeth and Anne, in Richard III.

As the designer, Jenny Tiramani, explains in a note in the Playbill, the wood-paneled set is modeled on an extant hall at Oxford, and the lovely costumes are all made with period-appropriate materials and craftsmanship. It is of course a gimmick, and it’s a great one.

St. Martyrbride, an invention of the playwright Marlane Meyer, is, we’re told, the patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity and sea monsters. She is invoked repeatedly in Ms. Meyer’s new play, The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, by its protagonist, Aubrey Little, an awkward, unmarried doctor with one leg shorter than the other. It’s obvious why Aubrey (Laura Heisler), an unhappy devout Catholic, insists on the saint’s existence, but that’s one of the few obvious things in Ms. Meyer’s play, which opened last night in Playwrights Horizons’s small Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The play is a parable about the power of faith and love to help overcome people’s basic animal nature, I think, but its elliptical storytelling and drastic tonal shifts from exaggerated comedy to tender soul-searching—exacerbated in Lisa Peterson’s uneven direction—make things tough to discern and tougher to enjoy.

The action takes place in an unnamed, insular California town, where Calvin (Rob Campbell) has just been laid off from his factory job. He drinks, heavily, and shoots the breeze with his best friends, Jack (Danny Wolohan) and Canadian Bill (Haynes Thigpen). His first wife, Marie, is mysteriously missing, and Aubrey, the local doctor, pines for him, as she has since childhood. Nefarious family members and landladies and other neighbors abound, plus a few murders and lots of leopard print and animals everywhere, including masks on stagehands rearranging the set.

It’s a David Lynch kind of town, full of ominous people with strange quirks, but, suddenly, after Calvin goes to prison, the broad and surrealistic comedy disappears, and he first delivers a tender confession speech and then shares a sweet reconciliation scene with Aubrey. They’re the best moments in the play—and wildly disconnected from much of what came before, or even between them.

How to Make Friends and Murder Them, the play by Halley Feiffer that opened last week at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is another lurid, exaggerated story of odd outcasts and the power of love. It’s even more disturbing than Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, and nearly as incomprehensible, but it benefits mightily from Kip Fagan’s assured direction, which keeps the action sharp and engaging even as the play’s message remains indecipherable.

Ada (Katya Cambell) and Sam (Keira Keeley) are sisters, whom we first meet in their early childhood. Mom, an alcoholic, is a nonpresence in their lives, and they’re both unpopular at school. Ada, at least at first, is the domineering sister, blond and determined to be famous; Sam simpers in her wake, following orders and sketching her sister’s picture. They share silly children’s games, as sisters do, and mildly terrorize each other.

As they get older, they continue the same games, the same relationship, except that the power balance seems to shift. Sam—who gets into the college they both wanted to go to, while Ada essentially gives up—gradually becomes more dominant, until eventually she isn’t. But what interrupts their dynamic most is the addition of yet another loner, the overweight, acne-ridden Dorrie (Jen Ponton), who first becomes Ada’s friend and then becomes Sam’s and ultimately gets trapped, horrifically, in the middle of the sisters’ codependency.

Ms. Feiffer—who also starred in Ethan Coen’s Women or Nothing early this fall—has written funny, spiky dialogue, and the three actresses in this strong class deliver it with relish, playing off each other with aplomb. It makes for a fun ride, even as everything in Ada and Sam’s world goes wrong—and even as you can’t quite figure out why.

Beth Henley is a playwright famous for Crimes of the Heart, a sweet-natured Southern gothic that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Last week she opened her latest, The Jacksonian, in a New Group production at Theatre Row, and now she, too, seems caught in the week’s trend of shockingly graphic comic dramas.

The Magic of Theater: The Globe Gives Us Shakespeare as Shakespeare Intended