Off Broadway Reviews
Happily, I can report there were no apparent injuries, and no one's spirits were the least bit dampened by the experience. Indeed, the production, a restaged version of the show that was first seen in a post-season Public Works' presentation in 2016, thumbs its nose at the weather and delivers its own deluge of pure delight. The large cast made up of professional actors and a glorious array of amateur performers from all over New York City retells the classic comedy of twins Viola (Nikki M. James) and Sebastian (Troy Anthony) who find themselves separated and alone, each thinking the other has perished in a shipwreck.
Welcome to Illyria, where, pre-show, you will be invited onstage for free popcorn and the opportunity to hobnob with the close to 50 community members who appear in the ensemble. Depending on the performance you attend, they will either be part of the "Red" Company or of the "Blue" Company, a pageantry representing young and young-at-heart residents of all five boroughs and the epitome of the Public Theater's mission of civic engagement and accessible theater for everyone.
Yes, the acting, dancing, and singing skills vary among the ensemble members. Yet while the Public Works productions have been, in the past, an "add-on" at the end of the summer season, this very enjoyable version of Twelfth Night, for which Ms. Taub wrote the score, serves as music director, plays the accordion, and appears as Feste the Fool, has been given the full-blown professional, front-and-center treatment. This includes the design elements, featuring Rachel Hauck's solid-looking two-story villa, complete with balconies, a fountain, and shrubbery, and Andrea Hood's grand array of costumes in every color and pattern imaginable.
The production follows the story set out by Shakespeare, albeit reduced to approximately 90 minutes in playing time. Viola, finding herself alone and bereft in a strange city, disguises herself as a young man, and, using the alias "Cesario," takes on work as a servant to Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood). Orsino sends his new aide to woo Countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) on his behalf. Before you can say "gender confusion," Viola/Cesario has fallen in love with Orsino, and Olivia has fallen for Cesario/Viola. The interactions among the three, under the joint direction of Kwame Kwei-Armah and the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis, are played with a mixture of broad comedy and tender sweetness, with an especially well-balanced performance by Nikki M. James. In her dual role as Viola and Cesario, she convincingly juggles the feminine and masculine aspects of the character she created for the 2016 production and has since polished to a gleam.
Also on hand are two of Shakespeare's great comic creations: the Countess's ne'er-do-well uncle Sir Toby Belch, and her pompous manservant Malvolio. Shuler Hensley is a riot as Sir Toby, never better than when he and Ms. Taub lead the company in a rousing rendition of a late-night drunken party song called "You're the Worst." Andrew Kober likewise shines as Malvolio, who dreams of rising above his station in life to marry the Countess and become, as he sings, "Count Malvolio."
Even with all the running around, the very large cast, and the outsized production numbers, it is very easy to follow the plot, which has been boiled down to its essentials and configured into a joyful romantic comedy in which all ends happily when the twins are reunited and confusion melts away. This take on Twelfth Night is as deserving an entry to the summertime Shakespeare in the Park festivities as any of the more traditional productions, such as the straightforward version of Othello that ran through most of June. Pick up a free ticket by joining the line at the Delacorte, at the Public Theater's home on Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or at one of the outer borough ticket distribution locations, or by joining the digital lottery. And, just in case, bring a poncho (no open umbrellas allowed!). Who knows? You may even catch a glimpse of the renowned Delacorte raccoon.