Public Works’ ‘Twelfth Night.’ (Red Cast, Photo: Joan Marcus)
By April Stamm
It takes a city to make great theater. Every borough. Children and millennials and boomers. Everyone of every complexion, every creed, every sexuality and every faith. It takes love and excitement and passion and sheer joy. The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Public Works’ Twelfth Night is all that and more.
This silly and endearing romp through Shakespearean comedic ridiculousness starts with confusion and ends with miraculously tied ends, all peppered with a healthy dose of mistaken identity, gender play, and buffoonery. After a violent storm at sea, Viola (Nikki M. James) and twin Sebastian (Troy Anthony) separately wash up on the fun-loving island of Illyria, each thinking each other dead. Viola, now forced to fend for herself, dresses like a man to serve the Duke, Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood). Sebastian lays low but we need him in the end so let’s not worry ourselves about what he actually does during the bulk of the play.
Viola falls for Orsino, who is already in love with Olivia (Nanya -Akuki Goodrich), a noble lady grieving her brother’s death, which proves her uninterested in his advances. Olivia — in rightful Bard-esque fashion — falls for the disguised Viola. A merry band of drunken tricksters from Olivia’s household also appear and they’re a hoot, too. Intentions get confused, people get confused, a man is forced to wear bright yellow socks, then all is sorted as the play concludes with three marriages.
Fred Ebb Award-winner Shaina Taub has written music and lyrics for this adaptation, and the result is an absolute delight. Her work never meanders away from the play’s structure, but rather adds to the celebration, along with choreography by Lorin Latarro. They draw the audience in with playfulness and keep them engaged with innovative musicality and thoughtfulness. Ms. Taub also plays the Fool, Feste, but it’s no vanity casting. She’s the caretaker of this lovely work, and it shows in every moment.
The rest of the principal cast does their characters proud. Andrew Kober finds his way through the often misunderstood Malvolio with humor and humanity, but there are so many more people to acknowledge. The Public Works production features more than 100 performers split into two casts, many from community organizations across the city. They seamlessly work in tandem to tell this tale of love and identity set to a rollicking score, reveling in moments of tongue and cheek modernism, and always playful and honest. Every soul-touching moment feels snuggly tucked into the world of the play.
Twelfth Night, among all of its flourish, evokes one word: joy. Every second is filled with it, from the silly machinations of the self-preserving Malvolio to Feste’s witty yet sincere commentary. Go old-school and stand in line for free tickets at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, enter an in-person lottery at the Public Theater, use TodayTix to enter the mobile lottery, or visit the Public Theater website to discover other free-ticket distribution sites (and discover an outer borough!)
Twelfth Night embodies what New York City is capable of, both regarding the arts as well as community engagement. This is one not to miss.
Public Works’ Twelfth Night
The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Delacorte Theater, Central Park
Through August 19
April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center. Follow her on Instagram at @aprilstamm.