One of the most lovely things to do in New York City in the summer is to take in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Free for all, it’s a grand tradition that every resident and lucky tourist should partake in, but it does have a few risks. Namely, the weather. And because pretty much rain or shine, the show at the Delacorte Theater will go on, just like it did last Friday night. When we started to make our way to Central Park for one of the many press shows, I looked up to the skies and just like the weather apps were suggesting, I saw trouble ahead. And I was right. It started to rain about 20 to 30 minutes into this magnificently fun musical version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and much like the frolicking and fun that was kicking into high gear on stage, the rain just never let up. It was just mild to moderate for the first little while, teasing us with the idea that we might get through this without getting completely drenched (I had been wise and brought a very good rain coat, but my plus one only had brought an umbrella, a tool not allowed during a performance), but the thunder and lightning that was giving us quite the backdrop to this Shakespearean love story suggested a different kind of outcome to this non-tragic musical. And with a theatrical flash and rumble, the rain suddenly turned into a downpour about two-thirds of the way through the ninety minute musical treat. It came down so fast and heavy that for only the second time in my personal memory, the show was briefly halted so we could scramble for cover. But before we could even ring out the towels we brought to whip down our seats, the show resumed, quickly and joyfully. We trotted back in to take our seats for in the remaining 30 minutes under a constant light rain that just got heavier and heavier until the final bow. It seemed like a communal rite of passage for us, and the cast, one that was happily undertaken by all with smiles and a laugh. Without a frown to be seen.
That was our night at the Delacorte, and even with the soaking we got, it still was an absolute pleasure of an evening. Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director of the Young Vic in London), the co-director, sharing credit with Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, and the brilliant and delicious Shaina Taub (Old Hats, Natasha, Pierre..., Hadestown), who not only wrote the intoxicatingly fun music and lyrical adaptation, but played the fool Feste with a perfect frivolity, the show perfectly encapsulates the charming treaty on love and attraction that has played on numerous other stages this past year.
This particular time, Public Works, an organization created in 2012 within The Public Theater that attempts to blur the line between professional artists and the community members, engaged the people of New York to become active creators rather than just spectators by partnering with community organizations across the city and involving them in their Shakespearean productions. The Public Works invites members of community organizations, such as Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard (Bronx), The Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Foundation (all boroughs), to take classes, participate in workshops, and attend performances, as well as audition and perform in their summer production. “Public Works exemplifies The Public’s long-standing commitment to community engagement that is at the core of the theater’s mission. It is animated by the idea that theater is a place of possibility, where the boundaries that separate us from each other in the rest of life can fall away.”
In the well-known festivities of Twelfth Night, a beautiful Countess, a head strong Duke, and feisty young lady and her brother, find love and attraction in the most unusual cross-dressing of ways. As the story goes, a shipwreck (naturally as Shakespeare loves a good storm and that particular night seemed to want to oblige us), causes a sister, Viola, portrayed with perfection by Tony winner, Nikki M. James (the 2014 revival of Les Misérables), and her brother, Sebastian to be washed ashore on the coast of Illyria, separate and unknowing of the other’s fate. Both believe their very similarly looking sibling has died in the tempest that brought down their ship, so each on their own seek salvation and safety in the same welcoming land. Viola disguises herself as a man for her own protection, and in the guise of ‘Cesario’, she is taken under the wing and employed by the handsome Duke Orsino, played by a dashing and well voiced Ato Blankson-Wood (MCC’s Transfers). He sends her to court a countess he desperately wants to believe he is in love with, but in the traditional Shakespearean manner and folly, the Countess Olivia, played with a wild abandonment by the glorious Nanya-Akuki Goodrich (DreamYard) falls for the manservant Cesario instead, just as quickly as Viola falls deeply in love with the Duke. He and the manly dressed Viola, as Cesario, share the wonderful of love songs, misdirected across the divide, but the look on James face is a delight, just like the song that rings out from the two, teasing us about what really is being said. But Sebastian, strongly played by Troy Anthony (Dream Yard) as we know, did not perish in the storm, but was rescued by a well-crafted character by the name of Antonio, beautifully portrayed by the wonderfully voiced Jonathan Jordan, an actor/recruit from the Military Resilience Foundation by Public Works for this part. It’s only a matter of time, and in this shortened musical adaptation, time is of the essence, that the handsome Sebastian will be mistaken by the love-sick Olivia, and the love triangle is dutifully and playfully expanded into a square (and maybe even a lop-sided pentagon if I heard the lovesick Antonio correctly professing Love for the saved brother, and I hope I did, because I thought it was a gorgeous touch).
The night we went, we were presented with the BLUE team, a multi-cultural collection of people of almost every age playing a few selected parts, dancing and singing in a gloriously joyous and solid stepping ensemble choreographed with love and a smile by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Waitress). It was pure pleasure in every aspect of the word, making us all feel like we were invited to one big party, hosted by the citizens of Illyria, and egged on by the wonderfully playful drunkard, Sir Toby Belch, uncle to the mourning Olivia. The playfulness of the ensemble enliven every scene they participate in with energy and joy, especially the night of revelry by Sir Toby, played most excellently by Shuler Hensley (TNG’s Sweet Charity), and his fellow trouble makers, Maria (an adorably funny Lori Brown-Niang from DreamYard), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall from DreamYard), and the slightly discarded but fun character, Fabian (Patrick J. O’Hare from Military Resilience Foundation). These four, after getting hilariously scolded by the pompous Malvolio, played to the hilt by the fantastically delightful Andrew Kober (Roundabout’s She Loves Me) decide to play a nasty but funny trick on the arrogant servant, Malvolio, punishing him for his attempt to chastise the lot for being too jovial. Sir Toby famously exclaims in the Shakespearean text, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”. Here in Central Park, Malvolio is punished for his attempt to reestablish order within the house by being given one of the best musical numbers of the night, and a hilariously dirty reentry for the finale. Generally in the straight forward text, I find his treatment uncomfortably mean-spirited and dark, as dark as the chamber he finds himself trapped in, but within Taub’s musical Twelfth Night, he really is the most fun, even when the joke’s on him.
I have seen the Shakespearean tale numerous times in the past year, most notably at TFANA in May, 2018 and the fun Fiasco version at the CSC in December, 2017, both of which were smart, clever, well enacted (in general), and heart-warmingly funny. As I wrote in my review of The Acting Company’s version at TFANA, Twelfth Night “one of Shakespeare most playful and endearing, but also one that requires a delicate hand in finding the correct comic pacing and the joyfulness within the sometimes mean-spirited revelry. Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. It was originally a Catholic holiday and like many other Christian feast days, it gave rise to an occasion for fun and mischief, with one of the themes being the inversion of the social order; a fairly direct cultural parallel to the play’s gender confusion-driven plot.” Kwei-Armah and Taub get the balance just right, perfectly and enthusiastically bringing everyone together in a joyous celebration of love embraced. Even with the rain coming down (or maybe because of it), we gladly cheered and joined with the frivolity and fun, clapping and encouraging them all to keep happily marching forward.
Set on a perfectly designed stage by Rachel Hauck (Public’s Tiny Beautiful Things), with colorful (wet) costumes that held together beautifully against Mother Nature by Andrea Hood (CSC’s Othello), as did the wigs and hair by Cookie Jordan (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…), generous lighting by John Torres (St. Ann’s Taylor Mac), with a strong assist by the same Ma Nature who also contributed to the sound design by Jessica Paz (NYTW’s Othello), the musical playfully retracted the storm that threatened the fun. Safely under a tent, the orchestrations by Mike Brun (music coordinator: Dean Sharenow; music supervisor: J. Oconer Navarro) played out to us beautifully, brought forth with love by the smiling accordion playing fool, the incredibly talented musical genius, Shaina Taub. In the end, love is found, and the twins are reunited. Sir Toby marries the wonderful Marie; Orsino is proposed to and marries the gorgeous Viola, Sebastian and Olivia rejoice in their marital attachment, and Antonio and Malvolio are both released from the chains that bind them, and maybe, if their hand holding is any indication, the two find a much better future than either dreamed of at the beginning. The rain attempted to wash away the musical joy that Taub and team brought forth, but love triumphed, and we all walked out of Central Park, damp but refreshed, filled to the brim with incandescent creativity and a community coming together for the pure pleasure of art and inclusion.
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