Twelfth Night & Richard III, Small Engine Repair and The Commons of Pensacola

Engine Repair and Pensacola both sputter, but the Shakespeare’s Globe’s double bill is spectacular!

Twelfth Night & Richard III   (5 stars)
Small Engine Repair   (3 stars)
The Commons of Pensacola   (2 stars)

Sublime, delicious and thrilling – what puny adjectives to describe the Shakespeare’s Globe repertory productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, perfectly ensconced in the Belasco Theatre through the holidays and into the New Year.  Directed with crisp alacrity and a sharp eye for detail by Tim Carroll, the star of both these riveting productions is, of course, Mark Rylance, the former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, whose acting genius cannot be overstated.  A two-time Tony winner for Boeing, Boeing and Jerusalem, Rylance is as dazzling as the love-struck Olivia in Twelfth Night as he is as the evil, manipulative killer, Richard III.  Both are completely unique and unexpected portrayals on opposite ends of the acting spectrum, pulled off with flair and style by an ever-resourceful Rylance.  The truly wondrous thing about the Shakespeare’s Globe productions is how The Bard’s words resonate so clearly and easily through the expertise of the cast.  There’s nothing like hearing Shakespeare performed by Brit’s and both Twelfth Night and Richard III are master classes in how it should be done.   Additionally, it’s hugely rewarding to see the all male repertory company essaying such a variety of roles in these two productions.  A prime example is Samuel Barnett (The History Boys) whose fiercely protective Queen Elizabeth in Richard III is the antithesis of his romantic Viola in Twelfth Night.  Both are riveting and Barnett’s natural, heartfelt turns are a revelation.  Finally, that every aspect of these two plays is informed by a desire for Elizabethan authenticity (costuming, settings, musicians, etc.) only provides copious icing for an already rich cake.  Truly the dramatic highlight of the season, a chance to see Rylance and company in Twelfth Night and Richard III is a chance to see Shakespeare at his zenith.

Anytime a play comes to New York boasting theatrical awards from Los Angeles, a ‘red flag’ should automatically go up and John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair being staged by MCC is no exception.  To be fair, Pollono’s play is certainly better than most, though it does bear the whiff of starting life as a screenplay and only overcomes its contrivances due to the charisma of its cast.  That cast, smoothly directed by Jo Bonney, is led by Pollono who’s actually quite good playing ‘Frank,’ a middle aged mechanic and single-father who’s rounded up a couple of childhood friends for a reunion that becomes more a test of their friendship than any of them could have imagined.  Frank’s friends, Packie and Swaino, are played by James Ransone and James Badge Dale (the son of Grover Dale and Anita Morris, for all you musical theatre fans) who engage in caustic, foul-mouthed banter with each other for the majority of the 75-minute running time until Small Engine Repair takes a surprising turn and retribution is achieved.  It’s to Pollono’s credit that the humanity and helplessness of his characters are able to overcome their banal, macho posturing.

Based on MTC’s The Commons of Pensacola, actress Amanda Peet shouldn’t waste a moment in returning to her acting career.  Given a first-rate production directed by Lynne Meadow and starring Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker – both of whom are terrific, even as they’re trying to get blood out of a stone – Pensacola is ostensibly a drama about what happens to the family of an embezzler like Bernard Madoff.  It’s a good idea, though Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin mined similar terrain last spring with far better results.  Peet’s script is clunky but it’s understandable why Danner and Parker thought it might be a vehicle for them to work together again following Sylvia in 1995.   Too bad they didn’t wait a bit longer.

Twelfth Night & Richard III will play through February 2 at the Belasco (111 W 44th St, ShakespeareOnBroadway.com).  MCC’s Small Engine Repair plays through December 8 at the Lucille Lortel (121 Christopher St, MCCTheater.org).  The Commons of Pensacola will play through January 26 (131 W 55th St, ManhattanTheatreClub.com).

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