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Twelfth Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 4, 2016

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Twelfth Night, which is playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through tomorrow night, is the best of the three Public Works productions I've seen (I missed the first year) for reasons unrelated to its ostensible librettist and inspiration, William Shakespeare. As with the previous annual shindigs, this isn't one to see if you're in love with the classic work on which it's based. Running barely an hour and a half, it's been cut to ribbons, every character has been denuded or misused, and what story remains is all but impossible to follow. But this is one of those cases where you have so much fun with what's there that you're happy to let what's not there evaporate into irrelevancy in the final, departing strains of the summer's oppressive humidity.

Though one could credit this success to director and co-conceiver Kwame Kwei-Armah or to the more than a dozen community groups whose members constitute the lion's share of the truly uncountable cast, the person holding all this together and hoisting it so joyously aloft seems to be Shaina Taub. Though she conceived the outing with Kwei-Armah, it's her portrayal of the narrating jester Feste and especially her composition of the brassy, bubbling songs that keep everything floating so deliriously that really makes this crazy-quilt of a pageant work.

It starts, as one could easily intuit, with a song called "Play On" (as in, "If music be the food of love") that sets the scene in an Illyria depicted as a Southern, New Orleans-style city somewhere in the latter half of the 20th century. The sound is a swirling, thumping blend of jazz, pop, and Taub's own distinctive voice (which was also on scintillating display in the revival of Old Hats at Signature earlier this year) that believably ushers in the conflicting plot lines—Duke Orsino (Jose Llana), who's lovesick for the in-mourning Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich); and Viola (Nikki M. James), who's washed up on shore and masquerades as her drowned brother, Sebastian, to keep herself safe and make herself a life—and gives the ensemble of dozens reasons to kick up their feet in celebration.

Jose Llana and Nikki M. James
Photo by Joan Marcus

But Taub keeps the hits coming. There's a series of sparkling interludes for the six sequin-outfitted Illyriettes who could have just stepped off of a Las Vegas stage; a surprisingly surprising (and effective) one-downmanship competition for the comedic support crew (Jacob Ming-Trent's boisterous Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Hall's ruddy Sir Andrew, Patrick O'Hare's sharp Fabian, and Lori Brown-Niang's tart Maria); a delicious, delirious fantasy can-can for the stuffed-shirt Malvolio (Andrew Kober, savoring every millisecond); a Karate Kid-themed training montage of unchecked hilarity; and various interweavings of lyricism and proto-funk that consider the serious matter of whether it's truly possible for Jacobean romance to exist in a harsh, surface-level world. It never stops, and it never stops getting better, right up until the stage-busting, dancing-in-the-aisles finale; it's the kind of magic trick you used to hear about happening in the Park (the stories about, and extant video of, the 1980 reboot of The Pirates of Penzance provide some proof), but that rarely does these days.

The rest of the well-paced production is solid, and the community participants, from (among others) New York Deaf Theatre, the National Association of Letter Carriers, The Love Show, and the Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center (for the dazzling martial arts workout that brings Viola into fighting shape), are exceptionally well utilized. And David Zinn's Technicolor Carnival set, Andrea Hood's bewitchingly colorful costumes, and Amith Chandrashaker's suffusive lighting are critical components. But whether she's simply playing her keyboard (perched atop an emerald convertible parked stage left) or flitting throughout the action as a sinewy spirit of mischief, Taub just sort of stands alone as the embodiment of what all this is and should be.

Shaina Taub and Andrew Kober
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is not to slight her professional cast mates, most of whom fill their roles with brio, and two of whom (James, an intoxicating combination of haunted and sultry, and Llana, who lets his Orsino radiate both dopiness and burnished intelligence) would be particularly fascinating to see in a full rendering of the play. It's that, when you get down to it, this Twelfth Night doesn't exist to tell Shakespeare's story. It's here to fulfill The Public Theater's mission and vision of a socially and artistically integrated New York City, and at that it succeeds. But so much depth, of tragedy and comedy alike, has been ripped from the script that those who are trying to meet the words and the feelings they elicit on The Bard's terms don't stand a chance. Assuming you know (and care) who everyone is, you have to fill in so many blanks in the Orsino-Viola and Olivia-Sebastian pairings that you often feel you're playing Mardi Gras Mad Libs.

Even so, little of this matters once Taub gets going. Whether as Feste or the mute musical director (the latter certainly one of the smallest roles on offer here), she's at once amusing and edgy, presiding over the evening with a wry sense of ironic abandon that couldn't be more at home in these haphazard proceedings. She even acknowledges that, as rendered here, everything is a bit on the pointless side. "Poor brother and sister," she sighs in song, "They both think the other one's dead / Guess I could just tell them / But then the play would be preemptively ended / And that would be a huge bummer / 'Cause we've been rehearsing all summer." Stupid? Yes. Logical? Absolutely. And once Taub has made you buy in to the ridiculous conceit, it's not that much of a stretch to accept—and, however gingerly—love everything else.

Twelfth Night
Through September 5
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Free tickets to Public Works: Twelfth Night

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