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Theater review by Adam Feldman
“If music be the food of love, play on,” the pining duke Orsino famously says at the start of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. What he says next is quoted much less often: “Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” There’s no room for so gloomy a sentiment in Shakespeare in the Park’s crowded, colorful, freewheeling musical adaptation of the play, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and songwriter Shaina Taub. The line is cut, and Taub, who plays the accordion-toting fool Feste, instead leads the citizens of Illyria in a jubilant paean to the power of song (“Clap your hands, start to sway / ’Til your worries melt away”). And there are so many citizens to lead! A spin-off of the Public Theater's Public Works wing, the production has partnered with community groups from all five boroughs—including the Fortune Society, Children's Aid and Domestic Workers United—to fill the stage with 70 nonprofessional actors in a pageant of inclusivity. Whereas Shakespeare in the Park's first offering this summer, Othello, was conventional to the point of stuffiness, this one airs everything out and gives it a good shake.
Directed by Public honcho Oskar Eustis—assuming the reins from Kwei-Armah, who steered a version of it in 2016—this Twelfth Night is as fast as it is loose: It has been trimmed to a fleet 90 minutes, including the many musical numbers. Not very much of Shakespeare's language remains, but the storytelling is lean and clear. In addition to Taub, who has a knockout voice, a few other seasoned performers anchor the cast adeptly: Ato Blankson-Wood as Orsino; Nikki M. James as Viola, who disguises herself as a boy to work as Orsino’s servant; Shuler Hensley as the dissolute Sir Toby Belch; and Andrew Kober in a primo turn as the uptight majordomo Malvolio, the clenched butt of many of the play's jokes. (Taub gives him a prideful show tune to sing, but also a sympathetic backstory.) Other key roles are played by amateurs; I especially enjoyed Nanya-Akuki Goodrich as Olivia and Jonathan Jordan as the lovelorn gay seaman Antonio. But critical evaluation seems almost beside the point. This production is about the spirit, not the letter; it's about making theater as accessible as possible not just to everyone in the audience—the actors often use sign language to augment their lines—but to those onstage as well. It's block-party Shakespeare, and everyone's invited.
Delacorte Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Dir. Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.