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Twelfth Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2017

Danaya Esperanza and Michael Bradley Cohen in the foreground,
and Sebastian Chacon and Ceci Fernandez in the background
Photo by Joan Marcus

Spring has finally sprung in New York, but it's summer 365 days a year in the Illyria of The Public Theater's Mobile Unit production of Twelfth Night. That would be Illyria, Florida, a mythical place that becomes buoyantly real in Saheem Ali's energetic spin on what may be William Shakespeare's quintessential comedy. Sure, maybe the perfect weather camouflages the darker truths of those who stalk the sandy streets and swimming pools of this place, but that's the great thing about living in a land of perpetual sun: The shadows never stay too long.

This has a wide-ranging impact on Ali's vision, if not always in the way the director intends. First, although (as Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis points out in a program note) Sebastian and Viola, the twins who are separated in a shipwreck, are illegal aliens hailing from Cuba, no deeper political message manages to bleed through. It proves to be merely background for this tangled tale of mistaken identity, as Viola finds work with and an affinity for the dashing Count Orsino while masquerading as the male Cesario. Their affections unable to land the right way, he's in love with the grieving widow Olivia, and she, in turn, is in love with the boy Viola most assuredly is not. Naturally, matters only get more complicated when the real Sebastian arrives, and no one knows who's supposed to be with whom.

Throw in the additional plot of Malvolio, tricked into wooing a willing Olivia on his own, and you have plenty of raw ingredients for romantic craziness. Ali has concentrated it further here, boiling the action down to about 90 intermissionless minutes, and giving the various love stories roughly equal weight. This makes the evening one of unrelieved, and unrelievable, madcap abandon, with each new scene and complication colliding with the one before it as though it's trying to outswim a shark. This robs the play of a lot of its elevated poetic nuance, and makes the fun almost entirely visceral: There's nothing wrong with that, but it can be exhausting, especially since it's all keyed at a high-pitched comedic level that isn't going to stop for anything, including your fatigue.

Again, it works for what it is: an ultraquick and dirty distillation designed to play in places, like prisons, schools, and outer-borough community centers, where Shakespeare rarely treads. But the character of Olivia is frustrating by any measure: She's hot for Viola-Cesario from the get go, all but ready to jump him (her?) from their first meeting, and the performer playing her (Ceci Fernandez) makes no secret about it. Starting her as a comic figure already in touch enough with her crushing feelings to rebuke them punctures the transformation she needs to make to a born-again creature later on; costume designer Dede Ayite tries to accomplish this by swapping out her black dress and veil for a gleaming white ensemble, but the effect fizzles. We've already seen Olivia bright from the inside out, so seeing it from the outside in isn't that much of a surprise. (Ayite's swank beachwear clothes are otherwise right on the money.)

Even so, Fernandez is excellent as a smoldering foil for both brother and sister; as Orsino, Michael Bradley Cohen hits a lot of the same notes in a more understated way, playing up the double-take confusion of a man uncertain of just whom he wants. Danaya Esperanza is an edgy Viola and Sebastian Chacon a laid-back Sebastian, and the two play well off of each other and their love interests, despite, in everything from height to skin color, looking laughably unalike. (A bit has been added to the preshow speech begging us to pretend they're twins; you can, of course, but suspension of disbelief does only go so far.) David Ryan Smith is a conventionally fey Malvolio, but amusing enough; Christopher Ryan Grant, as Sir Toby Belch, and Aneesh Sheth, as Maria, strain to match him note for comic note.

The live music, composed and performed by Michael Thurber (who also plays Antonio) and occasionally spelled by the lively Donnetta Lavinia Grays as the clown Feste, draws on the informal street sounds of steel drums (as filtered through a drum machine), thus setting a playful atmosphere in which anything can happen (an, in most cases, eventually does). The set (by Arnulfo Maldonado) isn't much more than a couple of floor drops and a few additional props, though that's more than enough to suggest a dangerous ocean, a relaxing swimming pool, a sweat-drenched boxing ring, and lots of other things throughout the night.

As with so much else with this Twelfth Night, it's exactly what you need and no more. If this is understandable given the production's Lafayette Street pricing strategy (tickets are free, as they were at the community locations), Ali sufficiently justifies it that you won't fret too much about what's missing. The play can be more textured than this incarnation, but it's a lightweight amusement for kicking off the summer that's happy to not tax you too hard. And when you're basking in the beaming rays it delivers, chances are you won't find that much to complain about.

Twelfth Night
Through May 14
Public Theater - LuEsther Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: