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A CurtainUp Review
Twelfth Night

Most wonderful! — Olivia
12th Night
Troy Anthony and Nikki M. James (photo credit: Joan Marcus)
A quick perusal of the Playbill for Public Works' Twelfth Night reveals a lot of productions of this play in this particular venue — six of them since the Delacorte opened in Central Park, more than any other Shakespeare work. Obviously part of this is owed to the greatness of the play itself, but other equally great works, even arguably more popular Shakespearean comedies, don't get this kind of attention. So there must be something about its mixture of anguished love, class and gender role commentary, gorgeous lines, and flat out fun that uniquely appeals.

When Deirdre Donovan reviewed the Public Works version of this production two years ago during a brief run at the Public's LuEsther Theater, she commented on its imagination and fun (Deidre's review), and now having seen what the company calls a "re-imagining" of that show, I agree entirely. In fact, its incredible energy works strongly to the show's advantage at the Delacorte, and perfectly fulfills Public Works' democratic mission of returning theater to the people for whom it was originally created. Combine that with solid direction and excellent music, and you've got a recipe for success.

When I say music, I don't mean the incidental variety so common to Shakespearean productions, but a full out, honest to goodness musical (wonderfully accompanied by the musicians, who are dynamite). Shaina Taub, who also plays Feste, is responsible for all of the excellent music and lyrics, which are unapologetically modern Broadway and jazz. It's a bold choice; especially with a production clocking in at ninety minutes with no intermission, there's not much time to get everything in as it is, and coming in blind, people could be justly concerned that the rest of the language could get lost. But somehow it never feels that way; the speaking portions are all straight-ahead Shakespeare, and if the clothing is more colorful, sometimes more outrageous, than a Renaissance audience would have anticipated, the emotional resonances are all there.

Much of the credit for this goes to excellent direction from Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who somehow manage to shape an enormous cast (which, made up of both professional artists and two rotating ensembles of community members from all five boroughs, could be a bit unwieldy if not handled properly) into a harmonious whole. The news isn't all good here; a few of the actors struggle, and the performances aren't perfectly even. But the show gets a major boost from its main performers; Nanya-Akuki Goodrich is solid as an overwrought Olivia, as is Shuler Hensley as Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Kober as Malvolio (whose finding of the fateful forged letter in the garden is masterfully highlighted in one of the show-stopping songs of the production). Troy Anthony is also good as Sebastian. But the particular standouts are Ato Blankson-Wood as Orsino, investing the Duke with more strength and less pathetic self-absorption than is the norm, and especially Tony-award winning Nikki M. James, who again demonstrates Viola's depth, courage, and strength with both subtlety and humor.

In fact, James is so good that her performance sometimes highlights one of the only real flaws of the production—with a running time this short, an increase in Viola's importance is certain to demand reductions elsewhere, and here Feste is usually given the short end of the stick. Taub handles the musical part of her role beautifully, and her song during Viola and Orsino's anguished moment of unrequited desire is the best part of the production, bittersweet and powerful. Her acting isn't quite up to her music, and in general Feste just becomes kind of background noise here. Even her vengeful treatment of Malvolio gets muted when many of the lines are taken instead by Sir Toby. It's an odd choice for a show which wants to do so much to democratize and diversify both audience and cast. Why, then, minimize the role of the most important outsider in the play, who is uniquely positioned to attack the social structure which arbitrarily puts overwrought fools (or at least normal people acting very foolishly) in positions of power?

Still, this is a minor issue since it can't override either the quality of Shakespeare's work or the energy and enthusiasm of everyone working on this production which leads me to one closing note. While walking out of the theater, we heard a couple behind us chatting about the show, with one repeatedly commenting to the other about how it "just isn't Shakespeare; why can't they call it something else?" This view is not only problematic in terms of what that logic would mean for the evolution of theater over time, it's a complete misunderstanding of Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare's work is many things, and capable of being interpreted in many different ways. But it is at its best when the energy and vitality of its age, combined with its startlingly deep analysis of the human condition, is allowed to flourish in our time.

To undercut the joy I saw on that stage on Sunday from the performers, a joy shared by most in the audience, out of a misguided belief about what "true" Shakespeare is, is to confine his work to the purely intellectual realm instead of the emotional field where it equally belongs. There's plenty of great Shakespearean dialogue in Public Works' Twelfth Night, but there's plenty of great spirit too. If you're interested in partaking yourself, brave the lines outside the Delacorte Theater; indeed there shall be more cakes and ale, no matter how virtuous we profess ourselves to be. Thank goodness for that.

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah
Cast (main characters):Troy Anthony (Sebastian), Lori Brown-Niang (Maria), Daniel Hall (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Shuler Hensely (Sir Toby Belch), Nikki M. James (Viola), Jonathan Jordan (Antonio), Andrew Kober (Malvolio), Patrick J. O'Hare (Fabian).
Community Ensemble features an alternating blue and red cast (blue--at the production reviewed)
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauk
Costume Design: Andrea Hood
Lighting Design: John Torres
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Running time: Ninety minutes
The Delacorte Theater, Central Park (enter at 81st and Central Park West), (212) 691-5919
From 7/17/18; opening 7/31/18; closing 8/19/18
Tues. - Sun. @ 8 p.m.
Tickets: Free, available by waiting on line, via digital lottery, or special distribution

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