Like the three earlier Public Works productions directed by Lear deBessonet, the founder/director of Public Works, the production once again featured 200 actors and community members alongside of five Equity actors including Tony Award winner Nikki M. James, Jose Llana, Andrew Kober, Jacob Ming-Trent as well as Taub herself as both Feste and the music director. The only drawback is that as this warm and witty show runs only four nights, not many New Yorkers will get to enjoy Twelfth Night’s exuberant fun.
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 and The Odyssey and this year’s communities partners include Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Casita Maria Center for Art and Education (Bronx), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn) DreamYard Project (Bronx), Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Project (all boroughs), along with alumni partners Children’s Aid Society and Domestic Workers Limited.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be a gloomy play as both heroines are in distress. However, Kwei-Armah and Taub have turned it into a bright, multicolored and vivid spectacle, due to the scale of the production, the performances and the design team. David Zinn’s unit set included a main section topped by fuchsia-colored umbrellas high in the air, two houses at each end of the stage (one in yellow and pink and one in purple and blue) along with a green 1970’s car covered with flowered decals from which Taub conducted the show. The floor was striped in green, yellow, red, orange, purple and blue parallel bands of color much like the abstract expressionist paintings of Morris Louis and Frank Stella. The hundreds of brightly colored costumes by Andrea Hood for the chorus members glowed in yellow, blue, pink, red and white, a veritable rainbow.
Although Twelfth Night is set in Illyria, somewhere off the coast of the Adriatic, this production 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 is dead. Dressing as a man and calling herself “Cesario,” Viola obtains a job with the lovesick Duke of Orsino who is enamored of the bereaved Countess Olivia whose father and brother have just died. As a result she 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 the male page in his employ. Elsewhere, Sebastian has also arrived in Illyria and is constantly taken for Viola who is only 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. 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 Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian) takes a dislike to Cesario and attempts to end his life in a series of comic encounters before all is sorted out for the best.
Kwei-Armah’s inventive direction made this Twelfth Night a delight at all times. Nikki M. James was a lovely, vibrant Viola with a fine forceful singing voice. Jose Llana made the dour Duke Orsino a little less gloomy than usual and seemed to lighten up as the evening developed. Jacob Ming-Trent’s Sir Toby was a comic creation and never over-the-top as this character is often portrayed. As the overbearing and supercilious Malvolio, Andrew Kober kept it light and entertaining. Taub herself appeared as the clown Feste in a delightful but brief appearance when she was not acting as Music Director. Among the non-Equity actors who make fine impressions, Nanya-Akuki Goodrich was flirtatious and coquettish as the Countess Olivia who falls for Cesario, being as inconsistent and changeable as women in love are apt to be. Troy Burton was a sturdy Sebastian, while Daniel Hall was amusing as the boorish and bumptious Sir Andrew.
Taub’s eclectic score to original lyrics includes jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, Broadway and ragtime. Among Kwei-Armah’s ingenious touches were his use of a series of community cameo groups to play backup for individual songs: the Jazz Procession for Countess Olivia’s father was played by the spirited Jambalaya Brass Band. Viola’s inner monologue was interpreted expressively in pantomime by New York Deaf Theatre. Malvolio’s solo Can-Can was performed by the nine energetic and enthusiastic dancers of The Love Show to the exciting choreography of Lorin Latarro. The duel provoked by Sir Toby was backed up by the thrilling drummers of COBU while his duel masters were portrayed by the electrifying Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center. Throughout the evening, the Illyriettes made up of six ladies dressed identically in purple sequined sheaths played backup group for various singers and musical numbers.
Public Works’ Twelfth Night created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub was a total delight while at the same time making this sophisticated Shakespeare comedy extremely accessible for all ages. It is to be hoped that after the brief New York run, the show will be picked up all over the country. It also marked the auspicious debut of the multi-talented Taub as double threat composer-lyricist, as well as music director and co-orchestrator.
Twelfth Night (September 2 – 5, 2016)
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 45 minutes with no intermission