Review by Kathleen Campion
Public Works’ Twelfth Night has you laughing, clapping, and waving your arms above your head while you’re in the theater and then reprising favorite moments on the dark exit paths all the way from the Delacorte to 81st and CPW! I am so sorry you will not get to see it as it closed on Labor Day. So we can only hope someone picks it up and makes it happen again.
While this Twelfth Night is based on a play by William Shakespeare, and it is at the Delacorte in the park, and it is produced by the Public Theatre, the producers are at pains to tell us it is not part of the Public’s acclaimed Shakespeare in the Park series; rather it is from Public Works, a subset of the Public Theater which works as a kind of theater-cum-outreach, blending professional and amateur actors, civic and cultural groups. A core of polished professionals does the heavy lifting and everyone else works hard.
The point is, this version of one of the Bard’s signature cross-dressing, love-will-out, and nobody-really-dies-in-a-shipwreck comedies, is more fun than a barrel of monkeys — and a barrel of monkeys is pretty much the only gimmick the company did not employ.
There are can-can dancers and a New Orleans’ funeral band, Kungfu fighters, and sequin-sheathed back-up singers — god, everybody worked!
The story follows a shipwreck — identical girl/boy twins aboard — each thinks the other drowned. Viola, the girl, washes up in Illyria, realizes she cannot make her way as a girl, so dresses as a boy and presents herself to Duke Orsino. Tony award winner Nikki M.James is our dignified Viola. She speaks the verses trippingly and keeps us in her thrall whenever she is on stage. While the original version of Twelfth Night played the girl in boy’s clothing just for fun, lyricist Taub enhances Viola’s part with a contemporary sensibility. Viola’s solo examines the power she’s won just by “…putting on a pair of pants.”
Andrew Kober’s Malvolio has several scene stealing moments as we wait for the ax to fall. Sir Toby Belch, the shape-shifting Jacob Ming Trent, and his pals, carouse with distinction and Lori Brown-Niang (Maria) holds her own in heavy company.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directs, teams with Shaina Taub on the adaptation. Taub’s music and lyrics, very much of our time, are a surprising fit to Shakespeare’s themes. For example, referencing the girl/boy confusion her clever anthem:
“Everyone wants who they don’t got, and everyone’s being someone they’re not.”
Taub is everywhere in this show — adaptor, lyricist, musician and our charming guide through the plot as she plays the wise ‘fool’ Feste.
In sheer numbers this cast rivals that of Ben Hur, and if it were produced along conventional lines, most of the cast would be extraneous. Public Works is about theater for everyone, about inclusivity, about celebrating the artist in each of us. That leaves room for the little kid who can’t keep a beat and the older guy who is heartbreakingly thrilled just to be up there.
There is room for the “guards” to be 20% NYPD and 80% community theater, and room for a walk on (to aggressive sexual hooting in section D) for Lorenzo Hudson from the National Association of Letter Carriers. There is room to be dazzled by Cobu Rhythm group’s dancing and drumming — room for the New York Deaf Theater to dance and sign seamlessly with the company.
Wow! Crowded, yes. But a really happy, fast moving, disciplined, joyous crowd. You wanted to be there.
Twelfth Night – Text by William Shakespeare; Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub; Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub; Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah.
WITH: Nikki M. James (Viola), Andrew Kober (Malvolio), Jose Llana (Orsino), Jacob Ming-Trent (Sir Toby Belch), and Shaina Taub (Feste);
Cameo group performances by COBU, Harlem Dance Club, Jambalaya Brass Band, The Love Show, New York Deaf Theatre, Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center and one United States Postal Carrier
Designed by David Zinn; lighting by Amith Chandrashaker; sound by Mark Menard; costumes by Andrea Hood.
Produced by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Closing date: Sept 5th