Even before the show starts at The Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, the stage is abuzz, both with performers — jugglers, hula hoopers, free-range kids — and with audience members, snapping selfies and nabbing bags of popcorn. (Free! As are the show’s tickets.) Should you arrive in a mood that doesn’t move you from your seat to mingle with the residents of Shakespeare’s fictional Illyria, you may find yourself, at the urging of the youngest Illyrians, taking part in “The Wave.” Just try to resist.
It’s a fitting prelude to this kitchen-sink telling of the gender-crossed, mistaken-identity comedy that joyfully mixes theater amateurs with pros and references everything from New Orleans jazz funerals to Beyoncé hits to Fortnite dances. Co-directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis (artistic directors, respectively, of London’s Young Vic and New York’s Public Theater), this Twelfth Night is a 90-minute sprint that tosses out a lot of 17th-century verse in favor of contemporary lyrics. At times that does give the impression of two shows sewn, artfully if not seamlessly, together: one a jaunt through Shakespeare’s text, the other a musical retelling.
The upbeat, jazzy songs are by Shaina Taub: She conceived of the show with Kwei-Armah, wrote the words and music, and now performs, both with the band and as the wise jester, Feste. Her numbers can be delightfully silly — one, sung by the game Andrew Kober as put-upon servant Malvolio, is warbled from inside a porta-potty. Another, “You’re the Worst,” led with drunken swagger by Malvolio’s foils, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew (Shuler Hensley and Daniel Hall) feels like a Friar’s Roast.
But the songs, picking up the play’s themes, also turn unexpectedly insightful. Our heroine Viola (a gracefully commanding Nikki M. James) is separated from her twin brother in a shipwreck and making her way by dressing as a man, Cesario, to work for Illyria’s Duke Orsino (the rich-voiced Ato Blankson-Wood), with whom she falls in love. He is, in turn, enamored of the countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, amusing in both mourning and leering), who then falls for Cesario, a.k.a. Viola in drag. Just when you might expect a musical break-down of the star-crossed shenanigans, Viola delivers a smart, thoughtful of-our-moment ballad about how she is regarded when people, including her crush, mistake her for a man, leaving her to question her worth without the suit. “If I’m a girl again, would he care what I have to say anymore… would I even be a woman he’d adore?”
The show’s stars are joined by a swarming chorus, thanks to the company’s Public Works program, which has populated two massive ensembles (they appear on alternating nights) with stage newcomers of all ages from groups like Children’s Aid and Domestic Workers United. There are Iraq war veterans, retired teachers, and, according to the jumbo “Who’s Who” notes, at least one aspiring astrophysicist. Also in the mix are members of the New York Deaf Theater company, and sign language is used on stage, if somewhat sporadically. (The Public Theater website has information for performances that are fully ASL-interpreted.) When employed by the hearing actors, the signing feels like an accent laid over their speeches or songs. Its use is most effective when a featured member of the Illyrian ensemble, JW Guido, who is artistic director of NY Deaf Theater (as well as the pre-show juggler), signs throughout one of Feste’s songs, illustrating the unspoken feelings of Viola and Orsino.
Still, even the sometime use of sign, plus a brass band that trails Olivia, a smattering of sword play, and just the sheer size of the cast gives this Twelfth Night a gleeful all-in feel. It rarely hits hilarious highs but delights with a steady insistence and overwhelms with a tidal wave of enthusiasm. Resistance? Futile. Let it wash over you. B+