The joy that thrums from every corner of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production is there from the beginning, as soon as you enter the Delacorte Theater. Hopefully it will not be raining, but only the strongest storms will stop a performance.
In front of you the stage is packed, a thronged village of activity designed by Rachel Hauck, with audience members (the night I was there, including a man and woman snogging each other’s faces off) mixing with the massed ranks of company extras from the Public Theater’s community partnerships with Brownsville Recreation Center, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, DreamYard, The Fortune Society, the Military Resilience Foundation, the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, Children’s Aid, and Domestic Workers United.
These extras, a singing, dancing cavalcade of residents from the fictional world of Illyria, span all ages, ethnicities, and genders: The “red” cast I saw (there’s an alternating “blue” one too) included an adorable young boy in a tiger onesie.
This is not a Twelfth Night for strict Shakespeare purists. Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic in London, and singer and composer Shaina Taub, it comes with a pared-back text and music and lyrics by the phenomenally talented Taub. Mike Brun’s orchestra occupies a tropical island-like shack at the corner of the stage.
The songs substitute for stretches of text. You will miss that text keenly if you have come to see a traditional Twelfth Night, but you won’t feel the play has been thematically traduced. The drawback is that the show, at 90 minutes, does not, cannot wait, to delve into the characters’ minds. It can feel join-the-dots at some points.
However, the skill of Taub is to compose within and behind what already exists in the play. The makeover makes the characters more clearly understandable emotionally; the audience at the Delacorte is as diverse as the cast. There was even a (very well-behaved) baby sitting on her dad’s lap behind this critic.
Taub’s songs pepper and move forward the story of the shipwrecked Viola (a watchful and playful Nikki M. James), who disguises herself as Cesario, a man, to become the steward of Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Ato Blankson-Wood), who is desperate to romance the rich countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich), only for Olivia to fall for Viola-as-Cesario. Ultimately, Viola—like Musidorus (Andrew Durand) in Head Over Heels—discovers a potent power in her brief experience of gender fluidity.
James darts around the stage, fleet of foot, trying to escape unwanted attentions, even as she is confused for her twin brother, Sebastian (Troy Anthony), and he for Cesario.
Malvolio (the brilliant and very funny Andrew Kober) is thoroughly gulled and humiliated by Maria (Lori Brown-Niang), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall), and Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley), a red-cheeked ball of chaos.
Kober both vividly captures Malvolio’s fun-killing pomposity, which motivates the trio to humiliate him, and also his vain ambition to be his mistress Olivia’s husband. His song, in which he is joined by the whole company in matching hats, imagining a life of grandeur and baubles, is the evening’s standout number; and special props to choreographer Lorin Latarro for getting everyone on stage moving in such impressive unity.
Taub is on stage all the time, as Feste, Olivia’s jester—and, in this production, the puppeteer of all the action around her as identities are muddled, and then, happily, all is resolved, with right and proper nuptials all around.
With direction by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and Kwei-Armah, not only is every part of the stage used and splashed with color and activity, but, in the play’s final song, the evening’s overall theme is emphasized.
This song is really the mission of the Public, particularly underscored by its free Shakespeare performances: Come together, be together, experience the world through somebody else’s perspective, the cast sing. If we understand each other better, we may well understand the world better.
It may sound simple, even a little too Sesame Street-sunny. But in the times we are in, this Twelfth Night has its own implicit political point about diversity and inclusion, a message on a much milder level than last year’s conservative fireworks around Julius Caesar, and its assassinated Trumpified title character.
As the Public intends it, this Twelfth Night is Shakespeare at its most open-hearted and holistic. By the end, even pariah Malvolio is beckoned into a group hug and joins in the dancing.
Twelfth Night is at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York City, until Aug. 19. Book here.