Written by William Shakespeare * Directed by Nicholas Hytner * Starring Helen Hunt, Paul Rudd, Kyra Sedgwick, Philip Bosco, and David Patrick Kelly

Director Nicholas Hytner has said in interviews that his production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center Theater in New York continues the theme of unrequited love he explored in his film The Object of My Affection. What he was shyer about saying was that the production also investigates the same slipperiness of sexual identity that figured heavily in the film about a gay man’s affair with his female roommate. In any case, Hytner has mounted a physically ravishing production (with a show-stealing set by scenic genius Bob Crowley) that makes the case for Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s most direct examination of homo love.


The production, which runs through August 30, features Hytner’s Affection-ate leading man, Paul Rudd, who is practically unrecognizable here (above). Bearded, hairy-chested and with a scraggly rock-star mane, Rudd’s Duke Orsino is costumed by Catherine Zuber to resemble Prince in his New Power Generation period -- all purple pajamas and brocade uniforms. As the audience enters, he and several serving boys are sprawled around an onstage pond passing a pipe and being serenaded by court musicians. He rouses himself to rhapsodize about Olivia (Kyra Sedgwick), the countess who spurns his advances while mourning her perhaps over-beloved brother. It becomes pretty clear, however, that this Orsino’s vision of women is a romantic spasm of compulsory heterosexuality. He seems quite content hanging with the homeboys. And when Viola (Helen Hunt) washes ashore from a shipwreck and disguises herself in trousers with just the right amount of gold piping to infiltrate his household as “Cesario,” she/he immediately becomes the Duke’s favorite, hand-picked to strip him down to his Princely purple trunks for a morning dip. Meanwhile, Olivia lives in her own parallel universe of gender confusion. Overdoing her grief like a major drama queen and chasing off all male suitors, she perks up at the first sight of “Cesario” and gets just as moony-eyed toward her as she is toward her boss, the Duke. Except for Hunt, who’s too restrained a butch-girl/femme-boy to be much fun to watch, the acting gives the lie to the myth that Americans can’t act Shakespeare. Sedwick and Rudd in particular pull off bold, physically daring performances. 

The cross-dressing, mistaken-identity stuff in Twelfth Night is usually milked for laughs, but Hytner plays it for maximum emotional disorientation. When Orsino starts kissing Cesario/Viola and she starts responding, even though she knows he’s coming on to her as if she’s a boy . . . well, the tension in the theater is thick with the awkwardness, dread, and excitement of illicit sexual awakening. Similarly, the low-comedy subplot involving the humiliation of Olivia’s stuffy valet Malvolio by her housemaid Maria, her drunken brother Sir Toby Belch, and the ne’er-do-well Sir Andrew Aguecheek takes on darker tones than usual. Philip Bosco’s Malvolio may be a prig, but after he’s tortured as much as Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, it’s a little hard to giggle. And Brian Murray’s Sir Toby is a kind of ACOA nightmare, a stumbling bully whom everyone has to pretend is behaving normally. 

The play concludes with a round of marriages that is supposed to signify Happy Ending. But Hytner makes you think twice. Maria’s hitched to Sir Toby, a prime candidate for detox. Settling down with Viola’s twin Sebastian, Olivia has blithely exchanged her Cesario doll for one with working male parts. And with Viola, Orsino faces the prospect of a heterosexuality that has never been more than theoretical for him. Knowing everything we know, it’s hard to believe that all’s well that ends well.

The Advocate, September 1, 1998