Sunday, September 4, 2016

Twelfth Night: Unfettered Joy

The first time I saw a production of Twelfth Night was three years ago at the Belasco Theatre. It was an acclaimed production, transferred over to Broadway after a successful run at Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre. It featured an all-male cast and strove for Elizabethan authenticity, showing audiences how this play would have originally been performed. Now, three years later, I witnessed a very different production of Twelfth Night put on by Public Works in the open-air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. A zippy musical with contemporary songs mixed in with the original Shakespearean dialogue, featuring the most diverse cast of actors I've seen on stage, this production broke my brain. In the best possible way.

Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and featuring music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, this play opens with a musical number entitled, "If music be the food of love play on," which is the play's famous opening line. In this context, however, it is not sung by the lovelorn Duke Orsino, but Feste the fool (played with indescribable perfection by Shaina Taub), along with the play's ginormous supporting cast. The whole point of the Public Works initiative by The Public Theater is to partner with people and organizations across New York City and encourage participation from professional actors and non-professionals alike. The result is that the opening number features a bright and colorful stage crammed with a diverse and beautiful sea of humanity, featuring all ages, genders, and races, letting you know that this is going to a spectacle of epic proportions.

The play proceeds with alacrity, economically establishing the cast of characters and tangled plot featuring identical twins, unrequited love, and drunken pranks. Halfway through the play, Feste sings a quick catch-up song to remind the audience that Viola (who is disguised as a man named Cesario) is still not aware that her identical twin brother, Sebastian, is alive. As Viola and Sebastian unhappily wander on opposite sides of the stage, Feste mentions that she could reveal the truth to the two of them right now, but then the play would end prematurely and all the hard work the cast has put in over the summer would be ruined. That breaking of the fourth wall is a sheer delight, occurring throughout the play and keeping the audience engaged as they suspend their disbelief over the decidedly ludicrous plot.

Twelfth Night has always been my favorite comedy. I would giggle and guffaw at the mistaken identities and cross-dressing and random hi-jinx with the yellow-stocking'd Malvolio (played by Andrew Kober in this production with magnificently indignant pomposity - I could watch him declaim about his "greatness" for a solid hour). But until last night, I had not realized what a romantic comedy it was. Taub has penned some thrillingly soulful ballads to capture the unrequited love that Orsino feels for Olivia, Olivia feels for Cesario, and Viola feels for Orsino. Previously, I regarded all this romance as a hilarious plot point, but as the actors passionately sing their hearts out, you realize that while the audience is in on the joke, the characters are not, and their feelings transcend this comic farce. Nikki M. James, who plays Viola, has a particularly stirring voice and for the first time ever, Twelfth Night stirred up emotions in me that had nothing to do with laughter.

This production of Twelfth Night demonstrates how magnificent theatre can be when you employ a diverse cast and go all out on stage. One love song features dancers from the New York Deaf Theatre, who sign the lyrics in ASL as they employ breathtakingly graceful choreography. A fight song suddenly features drummers and martial artists from the Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center - it is unexpected, but a perfect addition to the already bonkers proceedings of this comedy. Speaking of bonkers, at one point someone in a Pikachu suit races across the stage, chased by some Pokemon Go players. You may ask why on earth that happens, to which I can only reply, Why not? This production is the polar opposite to the one I witnessed at the Belasco three years ago. And yet, despite its unconventional approach, it probably hews closest to what a modern Shakespeare would want people to see in his plays. It entertains, it delights, and most importantly, it reaches deep into your heart and conveys the true magic of a night at the theatre.

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