Rylance Triumphs As Evil King, Mournful Countess: Stage

Mark Rylance, who has won Tony Awards for his horny airline pilot in “Boeing-Boeing” and his ex-daredevil burn-out case in “Jerusalem,” is putting on the show of a lifetime at the Belasco Theatre.

Two shows, in fact: As malformed monarch King Richard III and, at alternate performances, as Olivia in Shakespeare’s cross-dressing, twin-turning romantic comedy “Twelfth Night.”

Cast with an all-male company, these shows are wonderful. They have a classical polish and consistency rarely seen on U.S. stages. And I usually don’t love single-sex Shakespeare (what was required by law back then is merely a gimmick today).

The recent all-female “Julius Caesar” and now these have made a pretty strong counter-argument, though where Phyllida Lloyd’s “Caesar” was brutally contemporary, a conservative strain runs through these new shows.

The productions come from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Audience members are urged to arrive early and watch the actors get into character and costumes on the stage, serenaded by musicians on period instruments.

Candelabras with real candles are lit and rise above the unfettered space. The theater is never blacked out. The castles and battlefields of England and the seaside town of Illyria -- all are left to our imagination.

That also leaves us to savor impeccable performances under Tim Carroll’s direction. Rylance is free to play a garrulous Richard, “cheated of feature by dissembling nature,” as a not-quite hunchback, with a flopping, useless left hand.

Lethal Lies

His Richard crows with glee at every lethal lie, venomous kiss, broken promise. Rylance has mastered each of Richard’s 1,171 lines and adds guffaws, asides, stutters and winces.

As Olivia, he glides across the stage like a hovercraft, first veiled in mourning weeds then transformed by her affection for Cesario, who is in fact the disguised Viola (and thus, in this case, a man playing a woman playing a man).

Also to be savored is Angus Wright, who plays the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night” and Buckingham in “Richard III.” Colin Hurley is similarly brilliant as Sir Toby Belch in the comedy and King Edward in the tragedy.

“Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” run in alternating repertory through Feb. 2, 2014 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *****

What the Stars Mean:
*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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