THE BLOG
11/10/2013 11:00 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Mark Rylance and Company's Superb Richards III and Twelfth Night

Two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance (Boeing Boeing, Jerusalem) is stage-obsessed. He's so taken with all aspects of the theater -- as well as with London's new(-ish) Globe where he was artistic director for a decade-plus years -- that he has the Shakespeare's Globe Productions company he's leading get into costume in front of the Belasco audience. They do so -- dressers and all -- on a set that Jenny Tiramani bases on the original and replicated Globe lay-out, with two-tiered boxes stage right and left.

By this choice, spectators -- often treated as 16th-century groundlings to be spoken to directly by the actors -- get to watch, for instance, Rylance work himself into the padded doublet and tights he wears as the title character in Richard III and as the mourning Olivia in glittering floor-length black frock whom he impersonates in Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

He's playing these two vastly different figures in William Shakespeare's works in yet another strong bid for a Tony. Not, mind you, that for him acting is a matter of accumulating awards. It's not. He's clearly out to take command of the theater realm, to make every word count. I've seen what he does with scripts when he's toiling over them. He jots so many notes to himself that when he's through inventing whomever he's appearing as, there's almost no white space left on the page.

His imagination is so unbounded that anyone who relishes superlative acting can't take his or her eyes off him for fear of missing what unexpected subtle or broad gesture or inflection will occur next. Watching the surprisingly short and off-the-stage unassuming Rylance is a matter of studying someone who regards acting simultaneously as profoundly serious and unrestrainedly amusing.

Take his Richard III. It's not news that the ill-formed nobleman can be funny as he stops at nothing while maneuvering himself to be crowned king -- and, when, on the throne, still isn't satisfied. But Rylance compounds the fun by turning into a Richard of York who unabashedly giggles at his own jokes while he strides about with a decided limp and never using his withered and gloved left hand. Plotting to eliminate all competitors, this Richard frequently emits room-shaking guffaws at what he's getting up to. At one point, he literally crooks (pun intended) a finger at the audience to join him in his merry malevolence.

Or take Rylance's Olivia in what the program and related advertisements announce as Twelfe Night. Here's a woman grieving over her brother's death, a woman of surpassing refinement who's found nothing to comfort her until an emissary from a suitor for her hand arrives and melts her frozen heart. Even then, she retains her equanimity, gliding about the stage as if transported on wheels. Her speech has lute-like qualities. In the role, Rylance is depression embodied. He's as different from Richard as could be envisioned.

Though Rylance is top-billed -- it's unlikely the troupe he's brought with him would be here without him -- this is no instance of a 19th-century-like actor-manager touring with a company populated by pick-up performers. This is as accomplished an ensemble as has been seen locally in a long while and thus worth giving thanks for.

With Tim Carroll directing both the tragedy and the comedy and never running out of inspired ideas for either (his best notions alone would fill a notice), the challenge for any reviewer is deciding where to begin elaborate on everything bright and brilliant at hand.

It's certainly exceedingly difficult when there isn't a weak among the actors -- all men. (An interesting coincidence that the all-women Julius Caesar has only just concluded its St. Ann's Warehouse run.) Citing the standout elements is a tough task when Tiramani's costumes are seemingly authentic from undergarments out. It's a problem designating the most signficant contributor when the lighting -- only partially supplied by six chandeliers boasting a dozen or more candles occasionally dropping wax -- is so subtly intricate.

It's no easy task to declare foremost elements when the music, under Claire van Kampen's supervision and provided by musicians using traditional instruments, underscores so much of the proceedings lambently as played on this Globe's balcony. In the instance of the music-besotted Twelfth Night, music is played and sung as part of the action. Always remember, too, that this play contains some of Shakespeare's most haunting lyrics.

And, oh, the acting! Perhaps begin with Stephen Fry, who, aside from Rylance, is probably the best-known name this side of the Atlantic. He's Twelfth Night's maligned Malvolio. Having spent much of career in movies and as a television compere (when not writing superb novels and essays), Fry isn't a recognized stage personality, but he goes a long way towards rectifying that with this booming appearance. When Malvolio, whose self image is all-important to him, loses it in cross-gartered yellow leggings and rigged smiles, Fry knows precisely what to do to elicit chuckles and sympathy.

Samuel Barnett, first spotted in Manhattan with The History Boys, acquits himself beautifully as Viola in Twelfth Night and as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III. Joseph Timms does the same as Anne in Richard III and Sebastian in Twelfth Night.

Angus Wright as the wronged Buckingham and the wonky Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Paul Chahidi as Maria (check out his cleavage) and both Hastings and Tyrrell, Colin Hurley as the boozing Sir Toby Belch and the dying Edward IV -- they're all brimming with ebullience, with impeccable craft. Equally praise-worthy are Liam Brennan, Matt Harrington, Kurt Egyiawan, Terry McGinity, Peter Hamilton Dyer, John Paul Connolly, Jethro Skinner, Bryan Paterson and young Matthew Schechter and Hayden Signoretti.

When running the Globe, Rylance always featured a jig at the curtain call. He continues to delight in the custom. There's method to the theatrical madness, which is reminding the audience as it prepares to leave that no matter high or low the evening's spirits have soared or sunk, there's still something to be said for merriment. With this evening's list of triumphs, it's not only the actors who want to join in the jig. The audience is in the let's-all-jig mood as well.

A word to the wise and diligent theater-goer: Richard III is performed Wednesdays, Saturdays and some Sundays -- with very few exceptions. The Wednesdays and Saturdays are opportunities to see both plays in one day. Grab any and all opportunities.