Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah, formerly artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage and now London’s Young Vic, and singer-songwriter Shaina Taub, it also introduced to New York the first full length musical score by the extremely talented Taub. The dialogue is all Shakespeare; adaptation is by Kwei-Armah and Taub; the music and lyrics are all Taub. The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis has restaged and renewed Kwei-Armah’s original production with 50 community partner members instead of the previous 200 (!) and with Rachel Hauck’s new setting, this second version of Twelfth Night fits comfortably on the Delacorte’s stage. The audience is invited up to explore the stage with its stone courtyard and fountain, two-story mansion and tents up close and to partake in face painting, popcorn, large checkers, jumping rope, watching actors juggle or listening to musicians play.
Public Works is The Public Theater’s local and national initiative that invites diverse community partners across New York to join in creating large scale theatrical presentations. Since 2013, the productions have included The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It and The Odyssey and the community partners continue to include Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard Project (Bronx), Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Project (all boroughs), along with alumni partners Casita Maria Center for Art and Education (Bronx), Children’s Aid Society, and Domestic Workers Limited.
The current production uses approximately 100 community partner members in two rotating groups of 50 known as the Red Ensemble and the Blue Ensemble plus 14 Equity Actors including returning featured actors Nikki M. James (2011 Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon), Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, Daniel Hall, Andrew Kober, and Taub as the accordion-playing street entertainer, as well as being joined by 2002 Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be a gloomy play as both heroines are in distress and the hero has an unrequited love. However, Kwei-Armah and Taub have turned it into a bright, multicolored and vivid spectacle, due to the scale of the production, the vivid performances and Andrea Hood’s multicolored costumes. Aside from watching from the sidelines and joining in several of the solos and duets as backup, the large community ensemble is given two wonderful numbers of their own as townspeople: the jazzy opening number “Play On,” and the gossipy “Word on the Street” which is reprised twice.
Although Twelfth Night is set in Illyria, somewhere off the coast of the Adriatic, this version takes place in New Orleans with lace balconies and the jazz funeral which opens the show. Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are shipwrecked in Illyria, but are immediately separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Dressing as a young man and calling herself “Cesario,” Viola obtains a job as a pageboy with the lovesick Duke of Orsino who is enamored of the bereaved Countess Olivia mourning the brother who has just died. As a result Olivia refuses to hear marriage proposals for seven years or be in the company of men.
The Duke sends Cesario as an intermediary to Olivia who breaks her rule – and immediately falls head over heels for the young emissary. In the meantime, Viola has fallen in love with Orsino but must keep a low profile as a male page in his employ. Elsewhere, Sebastian has also arrived in Illyria and is constantly taken for Viola who has only been seen dressed as a man. All ends happily for Orsino and Olivia when it is revealed that there is one twin for each of them.
A farcical subplot concerns Olivia’s dissolute Uncle Toby, and her servants Fabian and Maria. In order to teach a lesson to Olivia’s pompous and puritanical steward Malvolio, they attempt to make him think Olivia has fallen in love with him. Not only do they succeed but they drive him so “mad” that she has him locked in a dark chamber, here a porta-potty. Of course, Olivia eventually discovers the plot and deals with all of the participants. Another one of her suitors, the rustic, unsophisticated Sir Andrew visiting from the country (egged on by Toby, Maria and Fabian) takes a dislike to the preferred Cesario and attempts to end his life in a series of comic encounters before all is sorted out for the best.
Eustis’ clever direction along with Lorin Latarro’s inventive choreography makes this Twelfth Night a delight at all times. Nikki M. James is a lovely, vibrant Viola and applies her fine forceful singing voice to a series of plaintive ballads. Ato Blankson-Wood makes the melancholy Duke Orsino much less gloomy than usual and seemed to lighten up as the evening developed. Shuler Hensley’s drunken, mischievous Sir Toby is a comic creation and never over-the-top as this character is often portrayed. As the overbearing and supercilious Malvolio, Andrew Kober keeps it light and entertaining. He is given a delightful vaudeville number, “Count Malvolio,” in which backed by his dream servants he imagines a wonderful future. The problem ending of Shakespeare’s play in which the sorely put-upon Malvolio goes away mad, promising revenge, is neatly solved here by bringing him back into the fold at the finale, all shaking hands, and everything is forgiven, going a long way to tying up the comic plot.
Among other actors who make fine impressions, Nanya-Akuki Goodrich is flirtatious and coquettish as the feisty Countess Olivia who falls for Cesario, being as inconsistent and changeable as women in love are apt to be. As her lady-in-waiting with a mind of her own, Lori Brown-Niang makes Maria an impish servant with a naughty sense of humor. Troy Anthony is sturdy as the confused twin Sebastian, while Daniel Hall is amusing as the dense and unworldly Sir Andrew, less imbecilic than this part is usually played. Jonathan Jordan as Antonio, the sea captain who has saved Sebastian’s life, adds a touch of contemporaneity by making it clear that he has a same-sex attraction to the handsome young man. Taub herself appears as the accordion playing clown Feste with a sharp wit in a refreshingly sardonic but brief appearance when she was not acting as music director.
Public Works’ Twelfth Night is a total delight while at the same time making this sophisticated Shakespeare comedy extremely accessible for all ages. In this more practicable and shortened form both in cast and length, it is to be hoped that after the New York run, the show will be picked up all over the country. It also marks the return of the multitalented Shaina Taub as double threat composer-lyricist as well as assured music director.
Twelfth Night (through August 19, 2018)
Free Shakespeare in the Park & Public Works
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line, Downtown Distribution Lottery at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or by Mobile Ticket Lottery powered by TodayTix at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission