For the fourth year in a row, some 200 New Yorkers from all five boroughs are performing this Labor Day Weekend on stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of what the Public Theater calls its Public Works project. This year, the show is Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” directed by Kwame Kewi-Arman with pleasing music (and original lyrics!) by Shaina Taub, who plays keyboards set up for some reason in the back of an automobile painted green. The show features performances by members of:
The Love Show, a group of Can-Can dancers
Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center, a group of martial artists
Cobu, a New York-based group of Asian-American drummers, that combines Japanese traditional Taiko drumming with rhythmic Tap dancing.
The cast also includes members of eight community groups, among them the Brownsville Recreation Center; the Children’s Aid Society, Domestic Workers United, the Military Resilience Project, a group of veterans, and the Fortune Society, a group of ex-inmates.
And there are many, many umbrellas — umbrellas as the central feature of David Zinn’s set, umbrellas as props, and umbrellas belonging to members of the audience, since rain had threatened. (It stayed a beautiful night.) Why the umbrellas? Only the audience members’ umbrellas had a clear purpose.
There are also a few scenes written by William Shakespeare, featuring such talented professional actors as Tony winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon, Les Miserables) as Viola, a shipwrecked young lady who disguises herself as a young man, naming herself Cesario.; and Jose Llana (The King and I, Here Lies Love) as Duke Orsino, who becomes Cesario/Viola’s employer. Those familiar with “Twelfth Night” will discern the plot: Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia (newcomer Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) on his behalf, but Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola. Meanwhile, Viola falls secretly in love with Orsino. (Shaina Taub also has a role in the play, as Feste the jester, proving herself an adept (metaphorical) juggler.) With the entire show pared down to 100 minutes, much of it filled with Taub’s songs and the community partners’ specialty acts, there is not much time nor attention focused on the Bard’s plot, nor subplots. Last year’s Public Works’ production of The Odyssey had incorporated the disparate performances by community groups while keeping the central story at the forefront. But this year’s “Twelfth Night” is closer to Public Works’ “The Winters Tale” in 2014, when the creative team seemed determined not to let Shakespeare’s play get in the way of the party.
It is, to be sure, a fun party, impressively put together and pulled off by such unsung heroes as stage manager Evangeline Rose Whitlock.
The playbill for this production of “Twelfth Night” declares Public Works as part of a centuries-old tradition called “community masque” or historical pageantry. Medieval passion plays involved members of the community as much as possible, we are told: “the shepherds would be responsible for the manger scene; the bakers for the last supper.” While I admire the Public’s erudition, the “Twelfth Night” I saw in Central Park owed far more to traditions established on television – “America’s Got Talent,” say (albeit without the competition), or, before that, “the Ed Sullivan Show.” That it is as much variety show as classical theater does not make this “Twelfth Night” any less entertaining, even if it does make it a little less “Twelfth Night.”
Written by William Shakespeare
Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Scenic design by David Zinn
Costume design by Andrea Hood
Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker
Sound design by Mark Menard
Hair, wig and makeup design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas
Music director Shaina Taub
Production stage manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Cast: Equity actors Nikki M. James (Viola); Andrew Kober (Malvolio); Jose Llana (Orsino);Jacob Ming-Trent (Sir Toby Belch); and Shaina Taub (Feste); non-Equity actors Nanya-Akuki Goodrich (Olivia), Daniel Hall (Sir Andrew), Patrick O’Hare (Fabian), Lori Brown-Niang (Maria); Troy Burton (Sebastian), David Weaver, Sr. (Antonio); Vivian Jett (wedding singer); along with cameo group performances by COBU, Jambalaya Brass Band, The Love Show, New York Deaf Theatre, United States Postal Carrier, and Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center. The Public Works community partner organizations are Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (Bronx), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard Project (Bronx), Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Project (all boroughs), long with alumni partners Children’s Aid Society and Domestic Workers United.
Twelfth Night runs through Monday, September 5. The production is free to the public.