11/15/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'Twelfth Night': Hilarity and Romance in Shakespeare's England

If you ever wished you could go back to Shakespeare's time just for one night and attend a performance of one of his plays, then you should beg, borrow, or steal a ticket to the incomparable Globe production of Twelfth Night now playing at the Belasco Theatre.

Led by brilliant performances from Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Stephen Fry, and an excellent cast of men playing men and men playing women, it is hard to imagine a Twelfth Night as dazzling, smart, and funny as this import from London. Under Tim Carroll's inspired direction, this Twelfth Night, which is being performed in repertory with Richard III, may well take its place alongside Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream of the early 1970s among storied theatrical productions.

Go early. The time machine that transports the audience back to the turn of the 17th century departs about half an hour before that familiar opening line, "If music be the food of love, play on," is uttered. In observance of Elizabethan mores, the cast is all male, and the audience watches as the men playing the female roles are laced into their petticoats and gowns and their faces are powdered white. All the while, a strolling trio of musicians plays music from Shakespeare's time. Even the stage lighting is by candles.

Music is central to Twelfth Night (the eminent Shakespeare scholar G. B. Harrison once described the play as a "symphony") and a septet of musicians perched above the stage provide accompaniment to the songs Feste the clown sings and other scenes on original instruments ranging from tabor and pipe to shawms, sackbuts, theorbos, and a hurdy gurdy.

But, as Shakespeare noted elsewhere, the play's the thing, and Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies and not without reason. Each of the characters is fully drawn and the three separate plot lines, which hang on mistaken identities, finally come together in a happy ending for everyone except poor Malvolio, who never learns to take a joke.

Twelfth Night was probably written in 1600 or 1601, based on some topical references, but improbable as the plot may be, it has never lost relevancy for anyone in love or who thinks he or she is in love.

The first three scenes introduce the three threads of the play, then gradually weaves them together: Orsino, Duke of Illyria, pines for Olivia, a countess mourning her dead brother, but she rejects him; Viola, a young woman washed ashore from a shipwreck in which she fears her brother Sebastian perished, decides to dress as a boy and seek employment in Orsino's court; Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a feckless upstart, also has designs on Olivia and is encouraged by her tosspot of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch. The rest of Olivia's household includes Maria, her meddling maid; Malvolio, her Puritanical killjoy of a steward; and Feste, her clown.

Rylance is nothing short of masterful as Olivia. Gliding across the stage in tiny, baby steps, he finds humor in the most banal pieces of business, as when Olivia tries to get a ring off her finger. It is Rylance's comic genius that is able to turn a throw-away line into high humor with only a quick double take, a glance, an extra pause, or the slight stress of one syllable over another.
Barnett is no less excellent as Viola - a boy playing a girl playing a boy - than he was in the legendary production of Alan Bennett's History Boys. Demure as the girl Viola and reticent as the boy Cesario, he is marvelous as he fends off the advances of Olivia while concealing his own love for Orsino.

Fry, incredibly making his Broadway debut only now, is one of Britain's most accomplished actors and his tut-tutting Malvolio, undone by his own vanity, is superb.

Each performance in the cast of 15 is outstanding. Angus Wright is especially droll as Aguecheek; Paul Chahidi is wonderfully conniving as Maria; Peter Hamilton Dyer is shrewd as Feste (and sings well); Colin Hurley is convincing as the family drunk; Joseph Timms is dashing as Sebastian; and Liam Brennan is melancholic as the lovesick Orsino, especially in the hilarious scene in which he begins to take a fancy to Viola, but thinking he is the boy Cesario.

Jenny Tirmani's delightful design and Claire van Kampen's magical music add to the pure joy of the show. Twelfth night in Elizabethan England was a merry holiday and the Globe staging of Shakespeare's play re-creates all its merriment.