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Theatre in Review: Twelfth Night (The Public Theater)

Christopher Ryan Grant, David Ryan Smith, Aneesh Seth. Photo: Joan Marcus

If free Shakespeare in Central Park is Joseph Papp's greatest gift to New York City, then the Public Theater's Mobile Unit may be his most necessary offering. Each year, a troupe is assembled to perform a play by Shakespeare in various locations -- community centers, mental health institutions, and correctional facilities -- bringing his dazzling words to audiences that otherwise might never have a chance to experience them. This program is now in its sixtieth year; it is difficult to imagine how many lives have been touched by it.

This year, the Mobile Unit presents Twelfth Night, an especially canny choice; its rowdy comedy, mistaken-identity plot twists, and pervasive gender confusions make it a natural, especially for young audiences. Saheem Ali's production is Latin-accented: The action begins with a salsa dance, the costumes lean toward Latin fashions, and the characters occasionally slip into a bit of Spanish. These bits of modern vernacular are totally in keeping with a fast, funny production that is designed to let Shakespeare speak to modern audiences. It is interesting how a new approach can make one listen to the play afresh. When Michael Bradley Cohen, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, said, of his failed pursuit of the fair Olivia, "Toby, your niece will not be seen; or if she be, it's four to one she'll none of me: the count himself here hard by woos her," I thought, That must be an interpolation. Four to one? Shakespeare was a bookmaker? And yet the words are there, in the original text. I've heard them spoken a dozen times before -- yet this is first time they were made memorable.

Ali has cut the text to ninety minutes, eliminating most of the play's darker notes and occasional bouts of melancholy in favor of raucous farce -- a reasonable choice under the circumstances. The approach works because it is solidly grounded in the text, and because the words are so well spoken. The twins Viola and Sebastian are played fairly straightforwardly by Danaya Esperanza and Sebastian Chacon, providing the soup├žon of seriousness that further highlights the fun. Esperanza also has several amusing moments, for example, when Viola, struggling to pass as a male youth, tries to fist-bump Orsino and totally botches the task. Later, Feste, the clown, in a fraternal gesture, puts his hand on Viola's chest and feels a bump where no man should have one -- forcing Viola to slip him a little hush money. Ali's direction also smoothes over some of the play's more arbitrary plot twists: He makes clear that Orsino, whether or not he wants to admit it, is attracted to Viola, even when she is dressed as a man, thus making more believable his eleventh-hour shift of affection from Olivia to Viola.

Ceci Fernandez's Olivia is a riotously vain, supercilious creature, too much in love with the image of herself as a tragic figure -- a role that becomes increasingly confining as she falls hard and fast for Viola. She is attended to -- with hand sanitizer, breath spray, and a mini-fan -- by David Ryan Smith's exquisitely humorless, utterly officious Malvolio. (One of his finest moments comes when, believing that Olivia yearns for him and wants him to smile more, he struggles to comply, coming up with a rictus that would charm no one.) Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's vulgarian relative, is played by Christopher Ryan Grant as a booze-soaked, party-hearty, overaged adolescent; at one point, when Olivia is holding court, he memorably stalks through, nursing a massive hangover, his sunglasses dangling from one ear. His companions in mayhem, Maria (Aneesh Sheth) and the magnificently dim Sir Andrew (Cohen again), are equally accomplished.

Working with his designers, Ali provides plenty of invention in his staging. Arnulfo Maldonado's set features three layers of matting. The first two, in sky blue, represent the ocean, as seen in the shipwreck with which the play begins. The final layer is painted in delicate rose and blue, providing the show's main playing surface. Sir Toby apparently likes to enjoy himself poolside -- thus, he and Andrew appear with inflatable float toys -- and, in the famous letter scene, he, Andrew, and Maria hide behind an inflatable palm tree, spying on Malvolio while he reads the forged letter that he believes to have been written by Olivia. The "duel" between Viola and Sir Andrew -- as always, a prime farcical set piece -- features an array of boxing-ring ropes carried on-stage by four members of the cast. (In a lovely grace note, the arches in LuEsther Hall are painted with the names of the venues the Twelfth Night tour has played, allowing one to grasp the tremendous reach of the Mobile Unit.) Dede Ayite's costumes are equally clever -- loud silk shirts for Sir Andrew, Miami Vice-style suits for Orsinio, Gap-style white shirts and khakis for Viola and Sebastian, and elaborately accessorized mourning ensembles for Olivia. (No lighting or sound designers are credited; in keeping with the touring aesthetic, the action unfolds under a basic white wash. Michael Thurber, who composed the music and plays a DJ-like character, operates a pushcart outfitted with a keyboard and audio looper.)

It all moves swiftly to the happy ending, which, it is slyly noted, could easily have resulted in same-sex couples and not the boy-girl, boy-girl arrangement Shakespeare had in mind. A couple of staging bits go a little far over the top for my taste, but never mind: This festive production is both an engaging introduction to Shakespeare for the inexperienced and a thoroughly enjoyable updating of an old favorite for the initiated. It also provides a fine introduction to young talents we are sure to hear from again. Cheers to the Public's Mobile Unit. Long may it wave. -- David Barbour

(9 May 2017)

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