by Carol Rocamora
Did you see those bright lights over Central Park this weekend, igniting the sky? No, they weren’t fireworks – they were the product of a joyous energy generated by 200 performers on the Delacorte Stage.
Now in its fourth year, the Public Works – a visionary creation of the Public Theatre – has created a unique partnership with diverse cultural groups from New York’s five boroughs, creating ambitious productions based on the concept of the “community pageantry”. Since 2013, they’ve filled Labor Day weekend with performances of The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, The Odyssey – and this year, an exuberant musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and actress/musician Shaina Taub, both members of the Public’s artistic family, have collaborated brilliantly to create the most entertaining, eclectic Twelfth Night I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
The collaborators have stripped down the text, maintaining the spine of Shakespeare’s story of love and intrigue. Set in so-called Illyria, the Duke Orsino (Jose Llana) is having trouble courting the Countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich). So the Duke enlists Viola (Nikki James) to serve as his surrogate wooer. Disguised as the Duke’s male servant, the so-called Cesario performs the task too well – and Olivia falls in love with him/her. A sub-plot is provided by conniving side-kicks and servants including Sir Toby Belch (Jacob Ming-Trent), Sir Andrew (Daniel Hall), Maria (Lori Brown-Niang) and Malvolio (Andrew Kober). Then there’s the surprise appearance of Sebastian, Viola’s long lost twin (Troy Burton), who solves the problem by falling in love with the Countess, allowing Viola and the Duke to end up together.
Following the core story, Taub has composed a colorful pop score (with non-Shakespearean lyrics), while playing Feste, the feisty clown, and serving as the show’s MC, narrator, and musical director. She conducts the on-stage band and plays keyboard while perched in a neon-green sedan under dozens of pink umbrellas that float over David Zinn’s flashy set.
The result is a technicolor spectacle of sound, movement, and stunning variety that lives up to the play’s subtitle – “What You Will”. The New-Orleans-style Jambalaya Brass Band marches in to kick off the action, followed by the Illyrettes, a girl-group in sequined fushcia cocktail dresses. On their heels comes a dancing/signing ensemble from the New York Deaf Theatre, followed by a troupe of martial artists from the Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center, then a corps of Japanese drummers from Cobu, then a line-up of can-can dancers from The Love Show, etc. (The list of participating groups goes on and on).
Miraculously, collaborators Kwei-Armah and Taub have marshaled these wildly diverse entities to create a glorious artistic whole – one that celebrates diversity. The stage is filled with performers of every age, shape, size, color and ethnicity (including a cadre of adorable dancing kids). A small ensemble of professional actors provide the core of the cast. Nikki James (of Book of Mormon fame) is a lovely-voiced Viola, opposite Jose Llana’s charming Duke of Orsino. Jacob Ming-Trent (a stand-out in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars) offers a devilish Sir Tobe Belch, and Andrew Kober sings a show-stopping, vaudevillian number called “Count Malvolio.” They are supplemented by dozens of dedicated non-professional performers.
I never thought I could fall in love with another Twelfth Night, after Daniel Sullivan’s grassy-green production at the Delacorte starring Anne Hathaway (summer, 2009) and Mark Rylance’s remarkable all-male company on Broadway (2013). But the Public Works’s Twelfth Night is in a class all by itself, celebrating the power of all-inclusive, democratic theatre – of the people, by the people, and for the lucky people who saw this sensational show during its all-too-brief run.