NEW YORK — What is it about “Twelfth Night” that turns New York into theater camp for movie stars in the summertime?
Shakespeare created his mystical island of shipwrecked cross-dressing romantics for the Winter Festival of the Epiphany of 1602. But the comedy — now starring Anne Hathaway in Central Park — has a way of capturing buzz like a bottle for Hollywood fireflies.
This is an observation, not a complaint.
For example, Hathaway recently morphed from her nice-girl princess roles to an astonishing hard-edge performance as the self-destructive sister in “Rachel Getting Married.” What smart — or at least gutsy — timing for her to make her professional classical stage debut at the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park (in previews for a June 25 opening).
As “Twelfth Night” doesn’t quite say, some are born Shakespearean, some achieve Shakespeare, and some have Shakespeare thrust upon them. It only feels as if we’ve seen them all.
In the past two decades, we have had summers with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum in the park (1989), Helen Hunt and Paul Rudd at Lincoln Center Theater (1998), and Julia Stiles and Jimmy Smits back in the park (2002).
Hathaway is 26, the same age when another Anne Hathaway, already pregnant, married an 18-year-old local boy named Shakespeare. The actress studied theater downtown with the Barrow Group while at New York University. Seven years ago, she also co-starred with Brian Stokes Mitchell in “Carnival” at New York City Center.
This may, or may not, have prepared her for playing Viola, who lands on the enchanted island after apparently losing her twin brother at sea, then disguises herself as a pageboy named Cesario in this multilayered comedy of mistaken identities and elevated delusions.
Our theater has taken a chance on stars — winning some, probably losing more — over the years. One need only look at the achievements of the famous names on this past Broadway season to recognize the bold line that separates stunt casting and ingenious matchups.
But is there something about “Twelfth Night” that works as a magnet for high-gloss names? Perhaps it is the strong female characters, alas, not often a given with Shakespeare. Viola/Cesario offers an extended chance to play both female and male, romantic and foolish. The play has enough comic knaves and related bumblers to challenge the best in character actors. The mysterious island lets directors imagine any time period.
As far as I know, Pfeiffer had no stage experience before taking on Olivia (who is smitten with the “pageboy”). She was green but game. She fidgeted too much and sounded flat. But she balanced the play’s foolishness with presence. And, of course, she was extraordinarily pleasant to watch.
For such casting impudence, producer Joe Papp was accused by many of pandering to the worst appetites of star-obsessed America and contributing to the decline of Western civilization as we like to think we know it.
Much worse, in my memory book, was Goldblum. The altogether endearing (before and since) actor went careening into gaga-land as an unrecognizable Malvolio, the court killjoy, delivering words one ... by ... one, or in bizarre bursts, pulling on his tongue and sticking to the cliff wall like his famous human fly.
Then came Hunt, fresh from years of “Mad About You” and her Oscar win for “As Good as It Gets.” As Viola, she crash-landed from the California A-list by turning into a zombie in Nicholas Hytner’s great-looking but dramatically inert “Arabian Nights” spectacle at Lincoln Center.
Hunt’s appeal had always been her simplicity, her disarmingly subtle way with varieties of honesty. But she was lost with stylized emotions. Her voice, usually prized for its unfussiness, had no music, and her intelligent face was in a perpetual squint. I don’t much remember Rudd, which cannot be a recommendation.
I do remember Smits, however, who was a big relief. Back from his public lives on “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue,” he was dashing, breezing and adorably self-mocking as Orsino, the lovesick duke, who pines for Olivia while fighting a strange urge for his pageboy Cesario. Stiles, alas, had the dramatic mystery of Cathy Rigby in a tin-soldier costume.
Looking back at recent productions, I am struck by the strength — and often the prescience — in the casting. When a movie star had one of the two big female roles, bets were usually hedged with a real stage professional in the other part. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was a radiant Viola to Pfeiffer’s Olivia. Kyra Sedgwick played Olivia to Hunt’s Viola. And look at this: Oliver Platt was madly lovely as Sir Toby Belch in the Smits/Stiles production, with Christopher Lloyd as a terrific Malvolio, and Kristen Johnston and Zach Braff in smaller comic roles.
Look for Hathaway also to be surrounded by formidable theater actors, including Audra McDonald as Olivia and Raul Esparza as Orsino. In 2006, Hathaway said she was more comfortable onstage than in movies. “I trained to be a theater actress,” she said. “Put me in front of a camera and I’m like ‘duh.’ But put me on a stage in front of 2,000 people, I know what I’m doing.” So we’ll see.
Shakespeare in the Park’s “Twelfth Night” starring Anne Hathaway, at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park near West 81st Street, in previews for a June 25 opening, through July 12. Tickets are free on the day of performance, two per person, after 1 p.m. in the park. Call 212-539-8750.