Play On, Play On

This is the story of how I single-handedly - well, not quite single-handedly -  revived the Public Theatre’s production of Public Works: Twelfth Night in Central Park.

The Public Theatre is the great Off-Broadway institution of New York City that prides itself on (usually) affordable and excellent theatre for all. Every summer, in the Delacorte Theatre in the heart of Central Park, the Public stages two Shakespeare or Shakespeare-adjacent works in a huge outdoor performing space. The best part about this yearly tradition? Every ticket is completely free. In recent years, in addition to the two main plays, the Public has put on community-focused pieces with casts featuring hundreds of New Yorkers from all backgrounds and walks of life. They call these shows their Public Works shows.

My first Public Works experience was Labor Day weekend 2016, when the first staging of Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed over the long weekend. I was familiar with Taub’s work before, having seen her in the Kazino Midtown incarnation of Great Comet (as Princess Mary!) and enjoying her songwriting from online clips from various Joe’s Pub gigs. The genderbending Shakespearean romance about a woman disguising herself as her presumed-dead brother to woo a mourning countess for a lovesick duke (with a delightful subplot about the royal drunks tricking the puritanical Malvolio into making a fool of himself for his mistress) is given a delightful jazz/soul/alt rock/circus/Broadway twist by Taub. Monologues once in iambic pentameter and Shakespearean verse are morphed into delightful, witty and heartbreaking ballads and show-pop tunes. Love songs and comedy songs and big Broadway production numbers go hand in hand in Shaina Taub’s Illyria, and it’s a match made in theatre heaven.

I came into Public Works’ Twelfth Night expecting a Shakespeare play with some new songs, and left with a new musical I was smitten by. I fell absolutely in love with this production when I saw it the first time, and when it finished its super-brief run I immediately began a twitter campaign to bring it back. I tweeted #RevivePublicWorksTwelfthNight at Shaina and a handful of the cast for a solid year and a half after the first run ended, until this past spring, when the Public announced it would be revived as part of the regular Delacorte summer season. I couldn’t be happier to see its return in a shiny new production. The original production, directed by Kwame Kwei Armah, considerably evolved from its first incarnation in the return engagement directed by Oskar Eustis. In the initial production, Nikki M. James played the crossdressing heroine Viola, Nanya Akuki Goodrich played the countess Olivia, Andrew Kober played greatness-seeking Malvolio, and Shaina Taub herself played Illyria’s resident musical fool, Feste. The other principal characters, resident drunk uncle Toby Belch and lovesick Duke Orsino, were recast from the 2016 run to the 2018 run – Jacob Ming-Trent’s very Jefferson from Hamilton-y take on Toby was replaced by Shuler Hensley’s goofy Homer Simpson-y performance, and Jose Llana’s Orsino was replaced by Ato Blankson-Wood’s. In both productions, hundreds of regular New York City folks got to be ensemblists in the world of the show, with specialty groups coming on stage to add to the excitement. In the 2016 run, the scene where Viola and Sir Andrew have a swordfight due to a mistaken identity mixup - ah, Shakespeare - a martial arts group did karate and sumo combos to the rousing “What Kind of Man Are You Gonna Be?”; in 2018, the heartbreaking unrequited love ballad “Is This Not Love?” was movingly sung by Taub’s Feste as various ensemblists performed the song throughout the Delacorte in American Sign Language. The highlight of both productions, for me at least, was Andrew Kober’s bravado turn as the pompous Malvolio. Taub wrote two massively delightful show tunes for the put-upon Malvolio to sing – “Count Malvolio” and “Greatness” – and Kober’s John Cleese-like comic timing and effortless belt made these two numbers instant favorites. The cast album just came out last Friday, and is absolutely worth a listen. Taub’s bouncy tunes and wit-filled lyrics will make you laugh, smile, and maybe even cry.

I think the Public Works initiative exemplifies the mission of the Public Theatre as an arts institution perfectly. It’s inclusive to all in both its cast and its audience - casts of hundreds of regular-joe New Yorkers, and free tickets to every performance of the run. The shows are written and directed by people who love theatre and showcase that love in every moment and word. And best of all, they do them every year, so there’s always an opportunity to discover Public Works for yourself. The Delacorte is a magical place, and Shakespeare himself would be proud of what goes on inside its gates every summer.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)