Friday, September 9, 2016

Theater Review—“Twelfth Night” in Central Park

Twelfth Night
Adapted by Kwame Kwei-Armah; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub
Performances ended September 5, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY
shakespeareinthepark.org

Jose Llana and Nikki M. James in Twelfth Night (photo: Joan Marcus)
Now in its fourth year, Public Works abridges classic plays (usually Shakespeare), adds contemporary songs and attitudes to play fast and loose with those works: it also crowds onto the Delacorte Theater stage as many performers that can possibly fit. This year’s entry, Twelfth Night—Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy about separated twins and a cross-dressing heroine—dropped much of the Bard’s most sublime poetry for Shaina Taub’s lyrical doggerel accompanied by her pleasant if unremarkable tunes.

Taub sang several herself while also playing Feste the clown and, when she wasn’t doing that, she also led a rockin’ onstage house band. Unsurprisingly, Taub’s asides and pop-culture references drew appreciative guffaws and cheers from the audience.

Many community groups from throughout New York City’s boroughs joined the cast of professionals and amateurs onstage: so the Jambalaya Brass Band entertainingly oompahed their way across the stage and the New York Deaf Theater beautifully accompanied one song; even United States Postal Carrier delivered a package to the full-of-himself servant Malvolio (played with self-satisfied hilarity by Andrew Kober).

The production turned the island of Illyria into a swirl of bright colors and sparkling costumes by master designer David Zinn, and the dozens—sometimes hundreds—of people onstage made this a truly communal event. I personally missed Shakespeare’s offhand insights, but there’s always fun to be had in the foolproof clownish subplot, where Jacob Ming-Trent’s gleeful Sir Toby Belch was a highlight.  

If Jose Llana was a bit of a stuffed-shirt as Lord Orsino, Nikki M. James more than made up for it with her winning Viola, nee Orsino’s male servant Cesario, soon confused with her long-lost—and presumed drowned—twin brother Sebastian. A glorious singer, James is also a terrific comedic and dramatic actress: she already proved her mettle several years ago opposite Christopher Plummer in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at Canada’s Stratford Festival, so why not Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, or even Viola in an unabridged Twelfth Night?

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