Last year, Dear Readers, you were witness to this reviewer stunned at loving an updated and musical adaptation of Shakespeare. This year, I say, it is summer and time to give your fools a night off because Shaina Taub’s genius coupled with the creative mind of Kwame Kwei-Armah strike again in the Public Theater presentation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah now playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Get over there and stand in line for tickets. I saw the show in the pouring rain and barely noticed my feet were soaked before the final number. (Note to self: Do not wear purple vented sneakers next year.)
Once you have your tickets, arrive early because before the show begins audience members get to explore the entire stage where an Elizabethan country carnival has been set up in the imagined land of Illyria complete with a cart full of free popcorn, a jump rope held by two ladies inviting you to partake, a giant checker board with pieces bigger than your head, portrait artists waiting to copy your visage and hula hoops which my daughter grabbed to show off her mad skills while I held her bag of popcorn.
It seems that Shakespeare, to give us permission to laugh, likes to acknowledge that life is absurdly tragic for us all. Twelfth Night gives us the grieving Illyrian noblewoman, Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) who, due to the deaths of her father and brother has sworn off all men for seven years (oh, Olivia!). But wait, there’s more tragedy, Viola (Nikki M. James) has survived a ship-wreck, which she believes drowned her twin brother, Sebastian, off the coast of Illyria. Viola needs to find a way to survive so takes her brother’s clothes to disguise herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood) who is so melancholy for love for Olivia that Viola instantly falls for him (who wouldn't, really?). Of course Olivia falls madly for Viola who has given herself a new name to match her brother’s clothes – Cesario – so Olivia has no idea that she is falling for an impostor. Oh, let the mischief begin!
Enter the merry-makers of this mischief: Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley) is Olivia’s uncle and he is your favorite drunk uncle – not the one who spits bitter nails of politics at Thanksgiving, but the one who cheers you up when you flunk your math quiz. Toby is in love with Maria (Lori Brown-Niang), who is Olivia’s lady’s maid. Maria is just as clever as her manipulative mistress when it comes to manipulation, so she is a perfect partner in crime. Sir Andrew (Daniel Hall) is Toby’s sidekick and also jealous of Olivia’s affections. Hall is beautifully expressive and silly. I wish he had a bigger part. And then there is the adorable Feste (Shaina Taub) who speaks the shy thoughts of characters who are hopelessly in love, but unrequited. Feste is only helpful to others after she takes a coin or two coughing up useful information and maybe a bit of poetry or wisdom.
This show is a community effort, which brings to it the richness of collaboration of minds from all over our city. The most noticeable contribution this approach brings to this production is that many of the players use sign language in their performances. As the daughter of one nearly deaf parent, it was exhilarating to see this kind of inclusiveness in the piece.
Goodrich gives us an empowered Olivia. She is master of her house as well as her life. I was relieved to see this this role played not as a sappy victim as I have seen it many times before. Goodrich, short in stature, commands the entire stage with a powerful voice and a heart that radiates warmth right to our own. She is seductive. I like her. She has a lot to manage. Her house steward, Malvolio (Andrew Kober), fancies himself above his station making himself a hopeless victim to the antics of Maria, Toby and Andrew. They convince Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Maria pens a love letter and the game of mockery is on while Malvolio’s arrogance lands him in a box of literal. . . . well, you will have to see. My daughter squealed at the unfortunate manifestation of Malvolio’s predicament. And technical mastery was not unnoticed. The stage was wet throughout the performance this night because the weather was relentless, but this did not dampen Kober’s playful and fearless adroit physical comedy, which was truly daring and so very impressive.
The love story of Viola and Orsino is played so tenderly. I was really happy to see Blankson-Wood again as he is just so damn handsome. He has a sexy voice and eyes that sparkle. The chemistry between him and James is that of young love sweet as the summer air in Central Park. There is a wonderful moment when Orsino is expressing appreciation for “Cesario” in a way that causes Viola to nearly swoon, James begins to acknowledge the compliments in her natural high register forgetting that she is supposed to be a man and quickly switches to her false voice. The reaction feels organic and unrehearsed, so a big laugh comes in such a tiny moment – I just love that kind of magic James created there. I also like that, in this age of sexual enlightenment, the emphasis is on the disguise being the barrier between the lovers, not the implausibility of love between two humans of the same sex.
It would not be a Shakespeare comedy if there were not huge confusion about identity. Not only is Viola an imposter, but Sebastian (Troy Anthony) is not dead! And he looks for all the world like his twin sister, so Olivia surprises herself when she finally seduces him, but the next day his attitude toward her has changed again because of course it is not him before her in the morning but Viola – erm. . .
Cesario – egads! How will this ever get sorted out? What we need here are a bunch of French doors. Also, some kind of explanation as to why Sebastian left Olivia, missed spotting his sister and gets everyone into a heap of trouble, including the guy who rescued him from the sea, Antonio (Jonathan Jordan). Alas, adaptations sometimes suffer a little loss of story line. But who cares too much when we are so entertained? Hensley steals scenes in the middle of it all and I hope one day Sir Toby gets sober, but I can’t help thinking he is a total riot. And it does all work out in the end – the night I saw the show this happy conclusion occurred despite a HUGE downpour during the last scenes – the company took it in stride and carried on with no loss of enthusiasm. It was as if everyone were blissfully at play.
Such a good feeling.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Still looking for that ideal summer getaway? Have I got a paradise for you. It’s called Illyria, and it materializes — like a beach-side Brigadoon — for just 90 nocturnal minutes in the green heart of Central Park, courtesy of the sorcerers responsible for the Public Theater's blissful musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"It’s possible that all of William Shakespeare’s comedies just play better as musicals. That was certainly the case suggested by Love’s Labour’s Lost, which got an antic and tuneful contemporary update five years ago from director Alex Timbers and composer Michael Feldman as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series. And there’s also much to admire in the new pared-down musical version of Twelfth Night, which opened Tuesday in a lively and fleet-of-foot production as part of the same al fresco series."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"Illyria has never been so welcoming, or so heavily populated, as it is in the free production of Twelfth Night being presented at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. A revised version of the Public Works' musical adaptation previously seen in 2016, this freewheeling version of Shakespeare's classic comedy proves a consistent delight. Purists may blanch, but everyone else will be thoroughly charmed by an interpretation that also serves as an excellent Shakespeare start-off for younger theatergoers."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"A musical take on the Bard offers the spirit of community, a lesson in gender identity and an infectious good time."
Nicole Serratore for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...