“The Food of Love”
Last week, as I subwayed home to Queens from a midtown show, I was so immersed in my book that I didn’t immediately notice I was sitting alone in my corner at the end of the bench. A fellow rider, sprawled across the opposite bench, had made a generous donation to my car of whatever he’d been digesting, and everybody had moved to the sides. Sometimes, it pays to have an insensitive nose.
|Nikki M. James and the Blue community. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Quickly, this being the subway, I got into a lively discussion with the woman on my right, who told me that the boy, her13-year old son, was a cast member in the current Shakespeare in the Park revival of Twelfth Night, which incorporates the services of a numerous local citizens affiliated with various community organizations. The boy, whose name I neglected to get, is involved with the Brownsville Recreation Center, formerly the Brownsville Boys Club, where I once did a teaching internship.
Like the other community participants in Twelfth Night, he’s one of two approximately 50-member ensembles (Red and Blue) that appear. Sadly, I discovered that he was in the Red group and I’d be seeing the Blue when I was scheduled to attend. If his proud mom, to whom I gave my card, happens to read this, send me a shout out!
For several years now, the Public Theater has been producing three-performance runs (separate from the annual Shakespeare in the Park presentations) of heavily adapted, musicalized classical material at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. They operate under the rubric of its Public Works program, created by the wonderful director Lear deBessonet in 2012, which has become a model of civic engagement with theatre arts. Twelfth Night follows in the wake of The Tempest (2013), The Winter’s Tale (2014), The Odyssey (2015), an earlier Twelfth Night (2016) directed by Kwei-Armah, and As You Like It (2017), which I had to leave midway through because the weather that night had no regard for its civic duties.
The current Twelfth Night, codirected by the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the new artistic director of London’s Young Vic (where a separate version will be done this fall), is the first Public Works show produced for a five-week run under the Shakespeare in the Park banner.
A “reimagining” of the 2016 Central Park production (which I missed), it resembles its above-named Public Works predecessors in being a freely adapted, considerably shortened (to 100 minutes!), and heavily musicalized version of the Bard’s original. The idea, though, isn’t new, what with musical versions of Twelfth Night having occupied New York stages since Your Own Thing in 1968, Music Is in 1976, Play On! in 1997, and a 2009 Shakespeare in the Park staging using a symphonic rock score by the band Hem.
|Shaina Taub and the Blue community. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The driving creative force here is Shaina Taub, the ultra-talented 29-year-old singer, musician, composer, and lyricist gradually becoming a major musical theatre presence. Taub, who has not only written a melodically delightful, unpretentious, and frequently enchanting score in the jazz, pop, and Broadway show tune modes, appears as Feste the clown, whom she makes a central figure.
|Patrick J. O'Hare (holding beverage), Shaina Taub, Shuler Hensley, and the Blue community. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Among her first-rate songs are Toby Belch’s insult-laden drinking song, “You Are the Worst,” the lovely ballad, “Is This Not Love?,” a chorus line number featuring Malvolio and the ensemble in yellow top hats, and the fight preparation song, “What Kind of Man Are You Gonna Be?” (No playlist was provided so I’m guessing at the titles.)
|Andrew Kober and the Blue community. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Taub’s lyrics are more contemporary prose than musicalized quotes from Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but they nicely fit the feel-good tone of the production. In her hands, Feste is a busker-like emcee in boldly striped colors and cap, and an accordion at her breast when she’s not at the piano. Although acting is not her forte, she comments personably on the story in song and speech.
|Lori Brown-Niang (in pink), Shuler Hensley, and Blue community. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Conceptually, this is by no means a novel Twelfth Night, although purists will surely rage at its desecrations. The severely cut text, which nonetheless manages to hew closely to Shakespeare’s original, retains a few chunks of his dialogue—especially the most accessible ones—in a script mingled with contemporary dialogue. Some cast members are deaf, in recognition of which many lines are conveyed by the actors both aurally and in ASL, although you might wonder why the signing is as selective as it is.
This Twelfth Night’s relative faithfulness to Shakespeare contrasts it with Desperate Measures, the popular Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Measure for Measure. The latter is an entirely new work maintaining only an outline of its source. The Public’s show is essentially a Twelfth Night primer, an Eighth Night, if you will; nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, entertaining as it is, its simplifications tend to patronize the wider audience to which it’s reaching out.
The many diverse nonprofessionals of all sizes, colors, shapes, and ages do things like banding together to suggest a sea tempest but, in general, dance (to Lorin Latarro's choreography), sing, and mill about as Illyria’s lively townspeople. Apart from their vibrant presence, there are notably few unusual interpretive tricks up the show’s sleeves to differentiate it from other modern-dress versions.
|Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, Ato Blankson-Wood. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Casting of the principals is as diverse as that of the community players, with actors playing roles they’d be unlikely to land in more conventional productions, and not necessarily because of ethnicity. The show makes no pretense at being realistic; two African-American performers play the identical twins Viola/Cesario (Nikki M. James) and Sebastian (Troy Anthony) but that can’t hide their considerable differences, especially their relative size. All that’s needed is similar costuming and the idea is clear.
|Troy Anthony, Nikki M. James, Blue company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Most of the staging, as in the comical combat (crafted by fight director Lisa Kopitsky) between Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall) and Viola, or the confinement of Malvolio (Andrew Kober) to a Porta Potty (with hilarious aftereffects), presses hard on the farce pedal. The audience responds with frequent laughter to such business, as it does to occasional verbal interpolations along the lines of “Oh, shit!”
Nothing of particular interpretive significance is suggested by designer Rachel Hauck’s generic background of a manor house (attractively lit by John Torres) with three large doors and several second story balcony openings, nor by Andrea Hood’s dozens of bright costumes, which convey a party-time air more than one of any particular time and place.
|Jonathan Jordan, Daniel Hall. Photo: Joan Marcus.
All the principals are fine and some have standout moments. These include Nanya-Akuki Goodrich as Olivia, Ato Blankson Wood as Orsino, Shuler Hensley as Toby Belch, Lori Brown-Niang as Maria, and Jonathan Jordan as Antonio (whose attraction to Sebastian the play enjoys stressing).
|Blue company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
My advice is to leave your Shakespearean preferences and preconceptions at home, be more a partygoer than a theatregoer, enjoy the good vibes and sweet tunes of an eclectic New York community gathered for a worthwhile cultural purpose, and pray for balmy breezes to blow, to and fro.
Delacorte Theater/Shakespeare in the Park
Central Park West at W. 81st St., NYC
Through August 19