By JK Clarke . . .
Twelfth Night is undeniably fun. I’ve seen dozens of productions of this play, which is among Shakespeare’s most beloved. And in each instance it has been performed from a different point-of-view and time period, proving its universal adaptability. So, it’s no small matter that The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production, playing just this week (February 11-19) at NYU’s Skirball Theater, is among the most inventive and entertaining I’ve yet seen.
I’ve seen every adaptation of Twelfth Night imaginable, from renaissance to Victorian to American western to classic “Elizabethan.” But this is the first time I’ve seen the play slide so beautifully into a contrived period: a blend of techno-futurism with flourishes of stately nobility. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does quite seamlessly. What makes this production special is its ability to simultaneously stay true to the original while being wildly fresh, original and inventive.
Director Carl Cofield is certainly to be credited for the entirety of the play’s success, its many elements combining to make a celebratory and delightful whole. But so much of the credit should be given to the cast who each put a personal stamp on their individual roles. Most notably, Kara Young (who garnered a much-deserved 2022 Tony nomination for her role in the uneven Clyde’s), who plays the shipwrecked and desperate Viola, who becomes a courtier for Duke Orsino (a charming William DeMeritt) and takes on the task of wooing (in drag) the seemingly unapproachable and in-mourning Countess Olivia (the at turns elegant and humorous Christina Sajous), who falls for the “young man.”
Other outstanding performances include Allen Gilmore’s sad and absurd Malvolio; Chivas Michael’s hilarious Sir Toby Belch; and Israel Erron Ford’s clever, mischievous and talented Feste, sporting long, multicolored braids trailing down from a top-knot, narrow future-tech sunglasses and LED-adorned, flashing sneakers. Feste turns the play’s Elizabethan songs (like “O Mistress mine, where are you roaming . . .” that, conceivably, embodies the play’s main themes) into electro-pop techno numbers, complete with on-the-spot auto-tuning. This melds nicely with Carson Elrod as Sir Andrew Auguecheek, a ceaselessly vaping, day-glo dimwit and Burning Man refugee. For once, Auguecheek’s relationship with Sir Toby makes sense: they’re both non-stop ravers, rolling on molly from dusk til dawn.
It’s a beautiful production that features stunning lighting and color effects by Alan C. Edwards (making use, in one scene, of Wayang-esque shadow play to evoke a New Orleans jazz funeral). Mika Eubanks’ gorgeous costumes alternate between an Afro-futurist/techo-funk look and elegant sub-Saharan textiles, with their unifying, yet colorful patterns and cuts. And Frederick Kennedy’s music and sound design completes the play’s transformation from a funereal heaviness to a joyous dance festival.
Sadly, this production closes Sunday, after just a one-week run at the Skirball Center. Though it enjoyed a much-lauded run last July at Marcus Garvey Park as part of the Free Uptown Shakespeare in the Park, it still deserves a larger audience and a much longer run. Such a professional production could comfortably make its home on Broadway or as one of The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park summer offerings which would be a delight to all fortunate enough to see it. Let’s hope it gets that chance.
Twelfth Night. Through February 19 at NYU’s Skirball Center (566 LaGuardia Place, between West 4th and West 3rd Streets). One hour 45 minutes, no intermission. www.skirball.org
Photos: Richard Termine
Cover Photo: Kara Young, William Demeritt, Israel Erron Ford