Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer … oh, damn, wrong Shakespeare. But it's the right sentiment, if we allow that the past winter – and spring and much of what followed – has been an unhappy drag (no collusion!). Here comes Twelfth Night in Central Park, a trilateral conspiracy to inject pure joy into these dog days and nights. “If music be the food of love, play on!” a child says at the outset, and music and love follow, indeed, for 90 minutes of unbroken pleasure in this most familiar yet inventively transformed of Shakespeare’s romances. It’s a J.D. Martinez home run.
Introduced two summers ago as a coda to the Public Theater’s two-play season of Free Shakespeare in the Park, this musicalized adaptation by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub has been trimmed to the essentials and carbonated with Taub’s smart, knowing and irresistible score. These are the adventures of shipwrecked twins Viola (the divine Nikki M. James) and Sebastian (Troy Anthony, tall, solid and looking nothing at all like his “twin”), each thinking the other drowned as they make their way in Illyria.
Viola, in men’s drag as Cesario, is engaged by the lovesick Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood, appropriately moony) to court the widowed, disinterested Countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, formidable), who in turn falls for Cesario, who has himself, er herself, fallen for the Duke – an equilateral triangle of perfect proportion. Sebastian, meanwhile, lays low on the lam until necessities of plot require his appearance to untangle the webs of love and deceit.
A subplot revolves around prim Olivia’s comically dissolute brother, Sir Tony Belch (Shuler Hensley, pop-eyed and garrulous) and his best friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall, overshadowed somewhat by his partner in crime), and their plot to humiliate Malvolio (Andrew Kober, superbly insufferable), Olivia’s self-important chief of staff, by tricking him into thinking the Countess loves him. Taub herself plays the all-important clown Feste (while hoisting an accordion and co-conducting the band, no less).
Here’s the thing, though. This Twelfth Night is a project of the Public Works, whose mission is to bring community groups from the five boroughs onto the stage as partners with the professionals. And so the people of Illyria are played by the people of New York, in this case from Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard (Bronx), The Fortune Society (Queens) and Military Resilience Foundation (all boroughs), along with alumni partners Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (Bronx), Children's Aid (all boroughs) and Domestic Workers United (all boroughs).
For all the important work that goes on in the Public Theater’s downtown HQ, none comes as close to founder Joseph Papp’s vision of Shakespeare for all as does Public Works. Moreover, this group – including young and old, a multitude of ethnicities and capabilities and a spectrum of stage experience – enhances the transformative magic of a sultry summer evening in Central Park. It’s a voluptuous aggregation, its waves of movement and declaiming given poetic power by the directors, Kwei-Armah and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, with no small assist from choreographer Lorin Latarro. (Also invaluable in setting the freewheeling but never patronizing tone are the period-evocative costumes and sets by Andrea Hood and Rachel Hauck, respectively.)
I do have one nit to pick. Twelfth Night includes a dirty joke that every teenager learns in English class. It comes when Malvolio reads what he is convinced is a love letter from Olivia, noting of the handwriting that “these be her very Cs, her Us and Ts, and thus makes she her great Ps.” Shakespeare thought so highly of his raunchy joke that he has Sir Andrew repeat the line just to be certain no one missed it. And so it’s a bit jarring to have it cut (it was in the script two years ago).
Nevertheless, a joyful noise rises over the castle in Central Park overlooking the Delacorte. It’s a call you’d be nuts not to heed.