Review: In a Blissful Musical ‘Twelfth Night’ in Central Park, Song Is Empathy

NEW YORK — Still looking for that ideal summer getaway? Have I got a paradise for you.

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Review: In a Blissful Musical ‘Twelfth Night’ in Central Park, Song Is Empathy
Ben Brantley
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Still looking for that ideal summer getaway? Have I got a paradise for you.

It’s called Illyria, and it materializes — like a beach-side Brigadoon — for just 90 nocturnal minutes in the green heart of Central Park, courtesy of the sorcerers responsible for the Public Theater’s blissful musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

This being an offering of the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park, your money has no value here. Even better, this is a place where people of all ages, races and genders live in harmony, with just enough gossip and misunderstanding to keep things interesting.

Everybody here is a star, from the local aristocracy to the postman. And perhaps most miraculously, the sun always shines in this enchanted country, even when it’s raining hard enough to plaster your shirt to your back.

I speak from firsthand experience, having been part of last Friday’s audience for Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s happiness-drenched “Twelfth Night,” which runs through Aug. 19 at the al fresco Delacorte Theater. The skies remained wide open that night — sometimes misting, sometimes spitting and sometimes bawling up a storm.

And yet, aside from a five-minute hiatus when the stage floor had turned into an ocean, the cast proceeded without missing a verbal or musical beat. It was taking its cues not from the nature-made deluge but from the sunshine-bright artificial lighting (by John Torres) that blazed over the Rachel Hauck’s tropical party town of a set.

If the charming people on stage seemed to be saying “Rain, what rain?,” who were we in the audience to disagree? The greatest privilege of being part of the theater, after all, is that you get to choose your reality.

And what a sweet alternative reality it is, as summoned by Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis, the directors, and Taub, who wrote the show’s merry and varied songs and also appears as Feste the clown. For what they and their team have conjured is a Platonic ideal of the crazy salad that is New York City in the silly season.

Part of the theater’s Public Works program, and staged in an earlier version for five performances in 2016, this “Twelfth Night” deploys a cast made up of both professionals (including Tony Award winners Nikki M. James and Shuler Hensley) and amateurs, culled from community centers and outreach programs. “Twelfth Night” uses alternating supporting ensembles (each numbering close to 50), designated in the program as red and blue teams.

I saw the blue group, and it wasn’t easy to tell the pros from the novices. Everyone on stage, dressed for vacation play in Andrea Hood’s sunny costumes, just seemed so glad to be there, part of a shared process of extracting rhyme, reason and song out of life’s bewilderments. The audience, by the way, is invited and expected to tour the onstage Illyria, and chat with its citizens, before the show proper begins.

The sprint of a musical that follows is remarkably true to its source material, not only in plot but also in moral content. Taub and Kwei-Armah (the recently anointed artistic director of the Young Vic Theater in London) have extended the original play’s consideration of the ambiguities of identity to address an age in which the divisions between sexes and classes paradoxically feel both more porous and unbridgeable than ever.

The story once again finds the ingenious Viola (James) shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, separated from her beloved mirror image of a twin brother, Sebastian (Troy Anthony), whom she believes lost at sea. She dresses herself as a pageboy to serve the narcissistic Orsino (played as a honey-voiced crooner by Ato Blankson-Wood), leading to a big, bright ball of confusion.

Much of Shakespeare’s spoken language is retained, but Taub’s songs are in different musical vernaculars — R&B ballads, plaintive guitar-based folk numbers and even jaunty music-hall turns. (Lorin Latarro did the spirited, something-for-everyone choreography.) Irresistibly tuneful, they also slyly illuminate the play’s investigations into love, cruelty and, above all, the mutable nature of self.

Disguise, as James' exquisitely conceived Viola sings in the show’s centerpiece solo, is “a wicked blessing,” as she discovers that as a man, she is far “less invisible to the world” than she ever was a girl. “I’ve seen myself from both sides now,” she sings with a mixture of perplexity and awakening power. “Is it half of each bringing love my way?”

Viola’s cross-dressed adventures lead to a Gordian knot of troubles, as she falls in love with Orsino, who in turn loves the proud Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, who revels in her character’s melodrama), who falls deliriously for the disguised Viola.

Further complicating these entanglements are Olivia’s hedonists in residence — her cousin Sir Toby Belch (a gloriously uninhibited Hensley), his slow-thinking pal Sir Andrew (Daniel Hall) and her lady in waiting, Maria (Lori Brown-Niang). At the other end of the spectrum of pain and pleasure is Olivia’s Puritanical steward, Malvolio (Andrew Kober, gleefully resurrecting the antic, pompous spirit of the young John Cleese.)

Weaving among them all is the canny, accordion-playing Feste. As portrayed by Taub, she is a chameleon clown, whose repertory of performances mirror the heartsick melancholy (as in the haunting “This Is Not Love”) and pleasure-sinking lustiness of those around her.

The more sybaritic sensibility reaches a blurry pinnacle in “You’re the Worst,” in which the heavy-drinking denizens of Olivia’s castle compete to out-insult one another. The malice in such playfulness soon comes to the fore when Sir Toby and company play a diabolical prank of Malvolio, which leads to his incarceration as a madman.

The persecution of Malvolio has always been the play’s most troubling aspect. This production puts it into perspective beautifully, in a silent moment in which Feste agrees to fetch the prisoner some light for his pitch-dark cell (in this version, a port-a-potty). The contemplative pity on Taub’s face at that moment says everything you need to know about a joke turned toxic.

The show’s concluding, celebratory song asks us to “see through the eyes of another, hear through the ears of somebody else.” That’s when you realize that while it may be exasperated love that has propelled the plot of “Twelfth Night,” it’s empathy that makes this production feel like such a blessing.

Seeing through the eyes of another is what theater — and all art — allows and demands. That’s the real magic at work here, and you do your best to hold on to it, as you proceed out of the park and into a city where the real “rain it raineth everyday” and is likely to chill you to the bone.

Production Notes:

“Twelfth Night”

Through Aug. 19 at Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

By William Shakespeare; conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub; music and lyrics by Shaina Taub; choreography by Lorin Latarro; directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Andrea Hood; lighting by John Torres; sound by Jessica Paz; hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan; orchestrations by Mike Brun; fight director, Lisa Kopitsky; music director, Shaina Taub; production stage manager, Michael Domue; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; general manager, Jeremy Adams. Presented by The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Patrick Willingham, executive director.

Cast: Shaina Taub (Feste), Nanya-Akuki Goodrich (Olivia), Ato Blankson-Wood (Orsino), Nikki M. James (Viola), Shuler Hensley (Sir Toby Belch), Lori Brown-Niang (Maria), Daniel Hall (Sir Andrew), Andrew Kober (Malvolio), Troy Anthony (Sebastian), Jonathan Jordan (Antonio) and Patrick J. O’Hare (Fabian).

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