There are more than 130 bios in the Playbill for Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, now receiving a revival at the Public’s Central Park home, the Delacorte Theater, after its premiere there two years ago. “Holly Valentine has three cats named Sophie, Lady and Ellie,” reads one. “Benjamin Levine loves penguins, dances ballet and wants to be an astrophysicist,” says another. Chloe Chen “loves her family, eating, pizza, and performing gymnastics,” and Ato Blankson-Wood — one of the production’s small company of professional actors, who plays the lovelorn duke Orsino — wants us to know that “we’re here together. Right now.”
That last is the main thrust of the Public Works program, which has been creating vast, community-based productions at the Delacorte for six years. Founded in 2012 by the director Lear deBessonet, Public Works partners with organizations from all over New York City — from recreation and arts education centers to domestic workers’ unions and foundations for veterans — to put on big, festive productions with mostly amateur casts of actual hundreds. According to the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, the program celebrates artistry as “an attribute of all people, not a skill limited to an elite few.” The idea is to build a kind of artistic city-on-stage, a place where “strangers become neighbors” and everyone’s innate creativity is called upon to make something together.
You encounter that mini-metropolis as soon as you enter the Delacorte. Casually and colorfully dressed in an array of primaries and prints by Andrea Hood, a diverse company of dozens (the “red” or the “blue” ensemble of community members, depending on the night) mingles with audience members up on Rachel Hauck’s summery set, which feels like a combination of a Mamma Mia–esque Mediterranean villa and the Jacob Riis boardwalk. With a face-painting table, a rolling ice-cream cart, ushers chirping “Welcome to Illyria!” as they take your ticket, and an onstage band playing jazzy background music under a striped tent, the production’s vibe is immediately clear: It’s a family-friendly beach party, a day at the Rockaways without the sunburn and the ill-advised alcohol in water bottles. Everyone on stage seems to be having a grand time, but though I generally find such earnestness infectious — and, hey, I dig a party! — I found myself spending long portions of the ensuing 90 minutes wondering why, despite my sincere desire to be swept up in the show’s cheerful shenanigans, my heart wasn’t quite in it. What was it about this Twelfth Night, for all its good faith and high spirits, that left me a little high and dry?
Perhaps I missed some of the most beautiful stretches of Shakespeare’s text. Kwei-Armah and Taub’s adaptation (here revisited by Eustis as a co-director with Kwei-Armah, who’s beginning his tenure as artistic director of London’s Young Vic with a sister version of this same production concept) is a full-fledged musical in which the original’s plot is preserved but its poetry is significantly pruned. At only 90 intermission-less minutes, with plenty of added pageantry, the play’s tale of shipwrecked twins, cross-gender disguise, and the follies and fluidity of desire remains intact — and, I should say, perfectly legible — but the heartbeat of its text is dulled somewhat, chopped up to make room for songs instead of speeches. That’s the trick of a musical: When characters are at their most emotional, they stop talking and start belting. So if, like me, you go to Twelfth Night looking forward to the transcendent spine-shivers of Viola’s “Make me a willow cabin at your gate / And call upon my soul within the house,” you’ll get a musical number instead. And though Twelfth Night is already one of Shakespeare’s more song-filled comedies, here you won’t hear the profound, strangely pleasurable melancholy of the wise and tuneful fool Feste’s “O mistress mine” or “The rain it raineth every day” either.
Instead, you’ll hear the work of Taub, a Public Works usual suspect whose mostly upbeat, at times soulful, and often witty tunes power the production. Taub also plays Feste, here a wry but kindly master of ceremonies who rouses the Illyrians into song with a squeeze of her accordion. Some songs are structurally clever, like a solo of unrequited love by Orsino (Blankson-Wood, who sounds gorgeous and speaks what verse he has with feeling and precision) that becomes a trio of misdirected affection with the countess Olivia (the plucky Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) and the page Cesario (he’s actually Viola-in-disguise, sung beautifully and played with ardor by Nikki M. James). Other numbers are undeniable fun, especially a kickline-backed fantasia of frustrated ego delivered by the pompous steward Malvolio (the excellent Andrew Kober) and a rile-’em-up fight song, led by the drunken rascal Sir Toby Belch (the swaying, swaggering basso Shuler Hensley), that’s intended to scare the socks off of Cesario and the cowardly knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall) as they prepare for a duel. Musical blowouts like these involve the entire ensemble — these Illyrians are present and participating in every step of the story — and feature all manner of wacky Easter eggs, from bouts of arm wrestling to karate demonstrations, from proliferating yellow top hats (Hood deserves kudos for the sheer quantity of costumes) to the dramatic death of a stuffed raccoon felled by a misaimed, and mimed, arrow.
There’s a buoyant, throw-it-all-at-the-wall kind of energy at work that at times is successfully contagious. There’s also a lack of shadow, and it was this unshaded approach to a play that, in its original form, contains deep and fascinating strains of melancholy, mystery, and cruelty that I eventually found myself balking at. Everything is explained in this Twelfth Night, and everyone gets the happiest possible ending. Why is Malvolio such a touchy, sententious jerk? He was picked last in middle-school soccer. Why does Viola, having realized that Olivia has fallen for her boy-form, choose to keep Cesario’s suit on? Because, as a man in a man’s world, she’s discovering her agency: “Would I be enough in my own skin?” sings James, “Why has this power in me never been given a chance? Is it as simple as putting on a pair of pants? … Who am I besides how I look to you?”
That’s a viable choice for an actor playing Viola to pursue, but despite the new material’s empowerment and self-discovery messaging, there’s something deflating in losing Shakespeare’s rich ambiguity. “O time!” says the original text’s Viola in the same situation, “Thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me to untie.” Those words don’t make the character weak or the actor unable to investigate ideas about gender and agency, but they do leave room for the audience’s imagination. We can’t know everything about these characters: They’re too deep, too human, too full of shades, subtleties, and sorrows. Even Twelfth Night’s clowns have their shadows, especially the alcoholic Toby — whose ugly mean-streak rears its head not only against Malvolio but against his supposed friend, the foppish Sir Andrew — and the aloof Feste, whose sense of humor is tied to his sense of fate. He’s not above revenge when the “whirligig of time” brings it in.
But in this Illyria, real cruelty isn’t on the table, and so real humor is often sacrificed. It’s not pretty to think so, but the two are close cousins, and part of the wiliness of Twelfth Night is its investigation of that kinship. Why do we laugh at losses of dignity, and when have the lines been crossed? A project of celebration and inclusion need not preclude complexity of content, but here the scales are tipped, producing a Twelfth Night that’s unrelentingly nice. For a play saturated in perilous excesses — of love, of grief, of ego, of drink, of mischief — it feels, even in its admirable broadness of mission, a little domesticated, a little warm and fuzzy. While that might be the Twelfth Night for some, in the Illyria that thrills and fascinates me, the rain it raineth every day — and in Central Park right now, summer showers aside, there’s nary a cloud.