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Twelfth Night Review: Shakespeare as a Popcorn Musical

I compared Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night” to a party and to a variety show when the Public Theater presented it in Central Park over Labor Day weekend in 2016. The unusual production featured a cast of professional actors mixed with some 200 New Yorkers from community groups from all five boroughs, as part of what the theater calls its Public Works project.
The show was evidently pleasing enough to enough people that the Public has brought it back as one of the Delacorte’s two major summer offerings, running now through August 19th. Many of the principal cast members have returned, including Nikki M. James as Viola, the shipwrecked young woman who lands on Illyria, disguising herself as a young man, unaware that her male twin Sebastian has also survived, much to the comic confusion of all the other characters. But there are also some new cast members who stand out, including Shuler Hensley as Sir Toby Belch. And there are enough other changes to justify the new production’s billing as “re-imagined.” I found the new version just as entertaining– but also improved as a work of theater.
One of the most obvious differences occurs before the play begins. The audience is invited on stage for a kind of pre-show carnival – we can mingle with the actors, watch card tricks, jump rope, play a giant checkers game, and line up for a free bag of popcorn.
Because it’s more taxing to perform for five full weeks rather than five days, the community ensemble members are divided into two rotating casts, the blue and the red, who perform on alternate days. I saw the blue cast members, who were noticeably more streamlined and in sync than what I remembered from 2016, undoubtedly because of the extra time to practice. They felt more like townsfolk from Illyria rather than non-actors thrilled to be on a New York stage. It was as if the fun but chaotic partying was now largely relegated to the pre-show carnival.
Having had time to recover from the audacity of Shaina Taub’s lyrics substituting for much of the Bard’s poetry, I could better appreciate the songs of this rising theater artist, whom Off-Broadway audiences might recognize from her performances in Hadestown, or Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Taub’s songs are all tuneful; many make you want to dance. Yes, her lyrics match her rocking music more than they do Shakepeare’s iambic pentameter. But (unlike, say, “Head Over Heels” ) Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night makes an effort to make a seamless whole out of verses written four centuries apart. She even incorporates a few of the Bard’s words (Her first song begins “If music be the food of love, play on, play on.”) At the same time (like “Head Over Heels”) Taub uses Elizabethan comic tropes — the cross-dressing, the mistaken identity — to make some of her 21st century political points. Viola sings:

I feel so seen as a guy
People move aside when i walk by
I felt so veiled as a girl
Invisible to the world

Rachel Hauck is now the scenic designer, replacing David Zinn. So when Shaina Taub, who as Festes (the role she played as well in 2016) performs the music that she’s composed, she no longer does so on a keyboard set up in the trunk of a green automobile; now she stands on stage, playing the accordion. Gone also are all the red umbrellas dangling over the stage, a signature feature of Zinn’s set. However, in another major difference, at least on the night I attended, there were a sea of umbrellas in the audience – because it was pouring rain.
Just to clarify: Almost all of us had umbrellas, but we weren’t allowed to use them during the performance, because they would obstruct the view. There were ponchos for sale with the Shakespeare in the Park logo on them. The Public combines its no-umbrella policy with its policy of: The show must go on; they rarely cancel a performance. They did pause it for about ten minutes during an especially vicious outburst about halfway through – but not in the final 15 minutes, when the outburst was even worse. This didn’t ruin the performance for me; quite the contrary. Very few theatergoers left. You haven’t lived until you’ve attended a performance at the outdoor Delacorte in the rain; it should be on every New Yorker’s (water) bucket list.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged, and read the caption.

“Twelfth Night”

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

Featuring Troy Anthony (Sebastian), Kim Blanck(Female Understudy), Ato Blankson-Wood(Orsino), Lori Brown-Niang (Maria), Nanya-Akuki Goodrich (Olivia), JW Guido (Featured Illyrian), Daniel Hall (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Shuler Hensley (Sir Toby Belch), Javier Ignacio (Male Understudy), Nikki M. James (Viola), Jonathan Jordan (Antonio), Andrew Kober (Malvolio), Patrick J. O’Hare (Fabian), and Shaina Taub (Feste)

Community Partners: Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard (Bronx), The Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Foundation (all boroughs), along with alumni partners Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (Bronx), Children’s Aid, and Domestic Workers United.

Scene Design by Rachel Hauck
Costume Design by Andrea Hood
Lighting Design by John Torres
Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Hair & Wig Design by Cookie Jordan
Director of ASL Jeremy Lee Stone
Fight Director Lisa Kopitsky
Orchestrations by Mike Brun
Music Coordinator Dean Sharenow
Music Supervisor J. Oconer Navarro
Music Director Shaina Taub
Bandleaders Mike Brun and Shaina Taub
Production Stage Manager Michael Domue

 

Twelfth Night runs through August 19. The production is free to the public.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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